Dutch forward Arjen Robben was at the centre of another diving controversy after he won the injury-time penalty which Klaas-Jan Huntelaar converted to hand Mexico their sixth successive second round exit in the cruellest possible manner.
Giovani Dos Santos had given Mexico the lead early in the second half in scorching conditions in Fortaleza and they appeared set to goal through until Wesley Sneijder smashed home an equaliser two minutes from time.
Mexico’s fellow CONCACAF side Costa Rica also took a second half lead through Bryan Ruiz and, despite having Oscar Duarte sent off after 66 minutes, were moments from victory before Sokratis Papasthathopoulos sent the game into extra time.
The exhausted Ticos held on for a 1-1 draw and won 5-3 on penalties, making them the first CONCACAF quarter-finalists since United States in 2002.
They now face the Dutch on Saturday in Salvador.
The weather clearly affected the Dutch match which kicked off at 1300 local time in tropical Fortaleza with the temperature at 32 Celsius and humidity at 68 percent, prompting the first official water breaks of the tournament.
Conditions were made worse because a large part of the pitch was in the baking sun for much of the game and it was so hot that swathes of seats in the sun were left unoccupied.
Mexico had the best of a snail-paced first half and deservedly went ahead after the break when Dos Santos chested the ball down 30 metres from goal before firing a low left-foot shot into the bottom corner of the net.
The goal prompted another exuberant fist-pumping celebration from coach Miguel Herrera, whose energetic performances on the touchline have made him a cult figure.
Mexico were nearly home and dry when they failed to properly clear a corner and the unmarked Sneijder blasted home the equaliser.
Then, in stoppage time, Robben, who had already had two penalty claims waved away, dribbled the ball into the penalty area and drew a tackle from Mexico captain Rafael Marquez that was controversially deemed a foul.
Robben offered the ball to Huntelaar who fired home to leave the balding 30-year-old dribbling specialist in the middle of another debate over fair play.
“Three times he dived, and they didn’t say anything,” fumed Herrera. “If the referee was fair, their second goal wouldn’t exist… because Robben would have been sent off for a second yellow card.
“But if you don’t book him after the first one, then the player knows he can get away with it.”
Marquez said: “I felt I touched the ground but I didn’t touch him, maybe he touched me.” He added that Robben told him afterwards “that it wasn’t a penalty, though one of the previous (tackles) was,”
Flamboyant Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said he cunningly used the second water break for a tactical switch.
“I moved to plan B and yes, I did that in the cooling break that is a clever way of benefiting from these breaks,” he told reporters.
Costa Rica and Greece served up an unappetising first half in Recife but the game came to life after Ruiz rolled a daisy-cutter into the net from 20 metres to put the Central Americans in front in the 52nd minute.
Like Mexico, the Ticos sat back on their lead and made life even more difficult for themselves when Duarte was dismissed for a second bookable offence.
Greece huffed and puffed and finally levelled in stoppage time when Theofanis Gekas unleashed a shot that Keylor Navas parried straight into the path of Papasthathopoulos who gleefully rammed into an empty net.
Costa Rica looked broken but, after surviving extra time, they gave a lesson in penalty-taking as they converted all five attempts in the shootout while Navas saved Gekas’s fourth shot for Greece.
“The confidence for the penalties was immense,” said Costa Rica’s Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto. “We knew we deserved it for the effort we had made. I don’t know if the sending off was fair or not.”
The round of 16 continues on Monday with two clashes between Europe and Africa.
France face Nigeria in Brasilia (1700 BST) and Germany take on Algeria in Porto Alegre (2100 BST) in a rematch of their 1982 World Cup meeting.
Germany coach Joachim Loew said he knew all about the Desert Foxes, who famously beat West Germany 2-1 32 years ago.
“We know how they train, we know they have a strong French influence,” he said. “We know that many of these players went to France and played and trained in the youth teams. The names may not be that familiar but the qualities certainly are.”
(Corrects typo in headline)
(Editing by Justin Palmer)