By Toby Davis
RECIFE, Brazil, June 24 (Reuters) - CONCACAF teams deserve to be treated with the same respect as those from Europe and South America, Mexico's charismatic coach Miguel Herrera said after booking a spot in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Goals from Rafael Marquez, Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez helped Mexico beat Croatia 3-1 on Monday and move into the tournament's last 16 having finished runners-up in Group A behind hosts Brazil.
With Costa Rica having made it to the second round and the United States looking well-placed to join them, it is shaping up to be a pivotal tournament for Confederation of North and Central America and the Caribbean, who have never before had three teams in the last 16.
Having lived for so long in the shadow of their more illustrious European and South American rivals, Herrera feels this World Cup, where Honduras have been the only CONCACAF team to struggle, has shown they have come of age.
"It clearly shows that in our region we are getting stronger and more solid," Herrera told reporters.
"We deserve the same treatment given to the South American confederation (CONMEBOL) and Europe (UEFA).
"CONCACAF has done a good job, we know there are lots of islands and teams that don't grow but the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras are doing great work to become more worthy every day," he told reporters.
"As a confederation we're growing in order to show we are ready to compete with the strong confederations which are South America and Europe."
The comments suggested Herrera would like to see the federation given more World Cup qualifying berths.
CONCACAF, which has 41 member nations, had three automatic places to the Brazil finals and a spot in a two-leg intercontinental playoff against the Oceania winners, New Zealand.
"Today CONCACAF is raising its hand, four of us (teams) came here and today two of us are in the next round, going through solidly and I think we are already being regarded with more respect," said Herrera.
"Costa Rica has done good work, the United States are already a strong team and Mexico showed it. Honduras also made their efforts."
The stocky Herrera, nicknamed Piojo (Louse), took charge of Mexico in October and steered them to the finals via an aggregate 9-3 playoff victory against New Zealand after they had flirted with elimination and sacked three coaches in six weeks.
He was a former Mexico player in the 1990s and has become something of an internet sensation, with his wild and emotional celebrations attracting hordes of online fans.
He roared in delight at each of his team's goals in the Recife's Pernambuco arena, grappling with players in raucous pitchside embraces each time his side found the back of the net.
His one gripe on an otherwise joyous occasion was that his side are continuing to bear the brunt of poor refereeing decisions.
After they had two goals chalked off against Cameroon in their opening match, they had two strong penalty appeals turned down in the space of a few seconds against Croatia when the scores were deadlocked.
"There should have two penalties in the same passage of play," he moaned. "And yellow cards seem to be very easy for Mexico and not for other teams."
Mexico will face the Netherlands in Fortaleza on Sunday after the Dutch beat Chile to finish top of Group B with a 100 percent record.
Mexico are habitual qualifiers for the last 16 having reached that stage on their last six World Cup appearances, but that has proved something of a stumbling block.
They have only reached the quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986 when they hosted the tournament.
"Our fans are happy and rejoicing with what we have done, but we have to win the next match for this to be the best side that has played outside of Mexico," Herrera said.
"Tomorrow we start working on the Netherlands. We will continue working with same intensity and show the same pace and rhythm in our running." (Additional reporting by Rex Gowar; editing by Ed Osmond)