By Julian Linden
(Reuters) - Mexico's World Cup roller-coaster came to abrupt end on Sunday when they suffered a heart-breaking loss to the Netherlands in the last 16.
The soccer gods, who had smiled on Mexico during their troubled qualifying campaign, finally abandoned El Tri when they were just minutes away from reaching the quarter-finals.
Two late goals, including a hotly-disputed penalty in stoppage time, consigned the Mexicans to a 2-1 defeat and a sixth successive exit in the round of 16.
It was a cruel way for Mexico to depart the World Cup after they had seemingly used up all their good luck just to qualify for the tournament after a tumultuous 2013.
They fired three managers during the year and had to beat Oceania champions New Zealand in a two-legged playoff after failing to secure one of the three automatic places on offer to the North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF) region.
They were just minutes away from missing out on the playoff spot when they were beaten 2-1 by Costa Rica in their final match.
They had already needed a stunning bicycle-kick goal from Raul Jimenez to beat Panama in their penultimate qualifier then some help from the United States in the final round.
A loss to Costa Rica left Mexico relying on Panama not beating the U.S. to advance. Panama led 2-1 as the clock ticked down but they conceded two goals in stoppage time, sending Mexico through to the playoffs.
Mexico arrived in Brazil with few expectations but left with their heads held high after a strong showing and the promise of better things to come.
They overcame the setback of having two early goals harshly disallowed in their opening match against Cameroon to win 1-0 courtesy of a second-half strike by Oribe Peralta.
Then they held the hosts to a scoreless draw in their second match before clinching their place in the knockout phase with a 3-1 won over Croatia with second-half goals from Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez.
Guillermo Ochoa emerged as a strong contender for the best goalkeeper of the tournament with a series of brilliant reflex saves while - conceding just one goal in the pool phase - then being named man of the match in the loss to the Dutch.
Veteran defender Marquez, the only player to captain his country at four consecutive World Cups, provided some composure in a youthful team, which included 10 players who were in the squad that won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Hector Herrera impressed in midfield while Oribe Peralta and Giovcanni Dos Santos combined to lead the attack after Hernandez, Mexico's most popular player, was surprisingly left on the bench.
Much of the credit went to Miguel Herrero, who took over as manager for the final stage of qualifying and transformed a disjointed and malfunctioning team into a dangerous unit that grew in confidence with each match.
Reportedly the lowest paid manager at the tournament, Herrera's eccentric sideline celebrations made him one of the most popular figures with a cult following on social media that helped make Mexico one of the most talked about teams of the World Cup.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)