A tough – but not unfair – exit for Rafa Marquez and Mexico

'Only the hardest-hearted could not feel for Rafa Marquez,' writes Ian Hawkey, but, 'In time, he may ... acknowledge it looked more like a clear-cut penalty than his angry coach conceded afterwards'.
Mexico's Rafa Marquez, right, is shown the yellow card by referee Pedro Proenca that results in Netherlands' winning penalty shot taken by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, second right, on Sunday at the 2014 World Cup. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / June 29, 2014
Mexico's Rafa Marquez, right, is shown the yellow card by referee Pedro Proenca that results in Netherlands' winning penalty shot taken by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, second right, on Sunday at the 2014 World Cup. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / June 29, 2014

Only the hardest-hearted could not feel for Rafa Marquez on Sunday. The captain of Mexico, wearing the skipper’s armband for a record-breaking fourth World Cup, stood two minutes from leading his national team past the most stubborn frontier of his long and distinguished career.

He then, suddenly and horribly, found himself at the centre of an unravelling. Today he will collect another air-ticket, stamped with the same frustrating dates as the ones that took him home from Korea and Japan in 2002, from Germany in 2006 and from South Africa in 2010.

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For the sixth successive World Cup, Mexico have exited after the group phase but before the quarter-finals. That will not stop Marquez, 35, and now ready to retire, being regarded as one of Mexico’s greatest footballers. He has been a Champions League winner, twice, with Barcelona and a shorthand for the kind of versatility the modern game cherishes.

As a younger man, he was an authoritative midfielder, a superb passer over long distance, with a venomous shot on him, a canny peripheral vision and a firmness in the tackle. He mastered the centre of defence, too. Not the tallest of men, he generates great spring from those strong thighs and is seldom consistently on the losing end of aerial battles.

At this World Cup, the Mexican maestro had been largely excellent in a well-organised back three. He scored for his country in the important win over Croatia that guided Mexico out of a tough group, including hosts Brazil. Yesterday, though, he was up against that most foxy of opponents, Arjen Robben.

In truth Marquez was fortunate to escape conceding a penalty for tapping the back of Robben’s ankle in the first period. In time, he may look back at the way he upended Robben in stoppage time in the second-half and acknowledge it looked more like a clear-cut penalty than his angry coach, Miguel Herrera, conceded afterwards.

Herrera, who has shown a global audience he is a man of passion, as well as a coach with strong tactical and man-management skills, reacted sourly to Mexico’s exit, raging against referee Pedro Proenca and against Robben, who does have a reputation for going too easily to ground under a challenge.

But just to have a reputation for it does not mean each fall is contrived or exaggerated. Mexico, having tamed the Netherlands skilfully, leaving them looking impotent for much of the first hour of yesterday’s contest, found the Netherlands No 11 unplayable at the end, and the moment Marquez conceded the penalty, gave the Netherlands the chance they needed to swing their way the outcome of a see-saw match.

Poor Marquez; the last five or six minutes of his 124th cap were agony. First, he saw the Dutch substitute, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, win a header from a corner – the type of set piece his Mexico had until then controlled so effectively – and place it skilfully in the path of Wesley Sneijder.

Sneijder’s shot rocketed past Memo Ochoa, who has been a goalkeeping star at this tournament, to save the Netherlands and, seemingly, inject their sapped bodies with the dose of adrenalin that led Robben to winning the spot-kick that Huntelaar converted.

The Mexicans will be missed, even if Herrera’s ire means they leave noisily, amid some irrational complaints and conspiracy theories.

The majority of their supporters, represented in large numbers in Brazil, have been stirring cheerleaders for an enterprising team.

Giovani dos Santos, scorer of the goal that put Mexico in front, has left enough souvenirs to make some Brazilians wonder if, had he chosen to play for the land of his father, Zizinho, rather than the Mexico of his birth, he might have contributed productively to the Brazil side, who have edged into the quarter-finals amid signs they could use his brand of live-wire creativity.

As for the Netherlands, their back-from-the-brink spirit was rousing. Conditions were hard, so hot some spectators left their seats for worse viewing points simply to be under shade.

Later kickoff times in the quarter-final should spare the Dutch the same level of humidity from now on, but they may miss the stability of the injured Nigel de Jong in midfield on Saturday, when they will start favourites to reach the last four.

Their confidence will be high, too, after the gumption they showed. Theirs is a young side, overall, but three senior players, Sneijder, Robben and Huntelaar, answered a pressure situation impressively. The pity was that a professional as fine as Marquez was left a heart-broken bystander.

sports@thenational.ae

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Published: June 30, 2014 04:00 AM

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