Who would have known that on a scorching summer day in Brazil, Mexico would receive an icy bath of heartbreaking reality — a last gasp penalty kick that would eliminate them from the FIFA World Cup.
The decision — and the dive that forced it — were heavily scrutinized on social media. Minutes after the match, chaos broke out on Twitter — giving life to a meme that would echo in the feeds of Mexican football fans for years. “No Era Penal,” was born.
“It wasn’t a penalty,” Mexico fans vehemently exclaimed.
But why do Mexican fans hold such strong feelings about this game? And towards the antagonist, Arjen Robben? What could have possibly sparked such animosity from two otherwise indifferent adversaries that day?
On June 29, 2014, the Netherlands hosted Mexico in a Round of 16 elimination match of the FIFA World Cup. It would spell the end of Mexico’s dream of an elusive fifth game. While elimination at this stage of the competition had become a formality over the past 30 years, this defeat in particular left a bitter taste in the memories of Mexico fans.
Having led for 40 minutes, courtesy of a Giovanni Dos Santos opener, the cheering Mexico fans suddenly went silent. A late rocket of an equalizer from the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder had put Mexico’s hopes of advancing at risk. With the game on the line, and full time approaching, Mexico fans were yearning for a whistle — and they got one.
Only, this was not the one they’d hoped for. This one would break their hearts —a penalty was awarded to the Netherlands.
How did fate sour so quickly? Four minutes ago, Mexico were heading into their first quarter final in 28 years, but now, they were on the brink of elimination.
One man was the root cause: Arjen Robben.
Carrying the ball, glued to his foot, at the byline of the penalty area, Robben twisted and turned his way across the field, dodging tackles and bodies until veteran defender Rafa Márquez stuck out a foot. The stamp on Robben, while minimal, was enough contact to send the Dutchman to the ground — and for referee Pedro Proença to reach for his whistle. It was a yellow card for Márquez, a penalty for the Netherlands and a last-minute nightmare for Mexico.
With their palms out in prayer and knees on the ground in hope, the Mexico fans and players watched as Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar placed the ball on the penalty spot. This kick would decide the fate of Mexico’s World Cup.
And as the spinning ball struck the back of the net, Mexico was out.
The goal invoked a deep pain for all fans of the Mexican national team — the type of pain that could only be healed by venting frustrations on Twitter.
So while Huntelaar was the hero on paper, Robben became the villain on social media.
His alleged theatrics had caused a ripple effect in the fabric of Twitter, with one hashtag soaring far above the others on the trending chart: #NoEraPenal. The phrase is Spanish for “It wasn’t a penalty.” The tweet’s original author, José Luis Mercado, has routinely posted the same tweet every day since June 29, 2014.
When the Netherlands failed to make the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Mercado tweeted in laughter, tagging Robben in his post. The anti-Robben sentiment in Mexico was alive, even three years after the Dutchman’s diving antics in Brazil.
Another meme surfaced on YouTube, from an angry fan reacting after the match. He repeatedly screams “No Era Penal!” — helping solidify the words into internet meme culture.
The following day, in response to the tension, Robben admitted to diving for a penalty — but only the one in the first half.
“I must apologise,” he said. “The one [at the end] was a penalty, but the other one was a dive in the first half. I shouldn’t be doing that.”
Even when interviewed six months after the tournament, Robben was asked, “Was it a penalty?” to which the Dutchman replied: “Yeah.” When asked if he followed the controversy after the match, he said “It’s part of the game, you know? It’s such a big stage, we’re talking about the World Cup. Everybody’s talking about it. But that’s the nice thing about football, everybody can have their opinion, and everyone can talk about this situation — but all football games. It’s what we’re used to.”
In Holland, Arjen Robben carries the nickname “The Flying Dutchman,” used to describe his incredible speed when dribbling the ball. However, for Mexico fans, the flying may have more to do with his acrobatic theatrics on that fateful day in Fortaleza, Brazil.
For them, the verdict is clear: No Era Penal.