BASEL (Reuters) - Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill was left to lament what he described as a cruel end to his team’s World Cup hopes after their 0-0 playoff draw with Switzerland on Sunday.
The two-leg World Cup playoff tie was ultimately decided by the hugely controversial penalty awarded for handball against Corry Evans and converted by Ricardo Rodriguez in the first leg in Belfast on Thursday.
Northern Ireland, who last qualified for the World Cup in 1986, were incensed as Evans had his back to the ball and it seemed impossible for him to get out of the way.
They also came agonisingly close to forcing extra-time on Sunday when Evans’ brother Jonny had a header cleared off the line in stoppage time — also by Rodriguez.
“The cruelty is the poorness of the decision,” O’Neill told reporters. “We should still be playing extra time right now... yes, Switzerland were the better team in the first game but they didn’t score (from open play) and we were the better team tonight.
“Of course, the players are emotional, they are upset, there were some players in tears,” he added.
“The emotions are very high, it’s a huge, huge disappointment. For some of these players, it’s unlikely that the World Cup will come around for them.”
Congratulating his opponents, O’Neill added that they were not to blame for the way the tie was settled. “We don’t hold that against Switzerland,” he said.
Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar