Frustrated and annoyed, the Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said the 58th minute penalty kick with which Switzerland won the World Cup play-off in Belfast was as bad a decision as he has ever seen.
Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategem awarded the penalty for Corry Evans’ alleged handball, but replays showed the ball struck Evans’ back.
“It is staggering to see,” said O’Neill. “The ball clearly strikes Corry on the back and the referee has a clear view of the incident. I thought he had given an offside or something.
“You could tell even from the Swiss players, there was a reaction of surprise that they had been given a penalty for an incident like that. Corry’s arm is not above his head or in an unnatural position, it’s not away from his body and the ball didn’t even hit him in the arm. It doesn’t qualify for any of the criteria you are looking for for a handball in the box”
Few inside Windsor Park could dispute that Switzerland deserved to win, but they did not deserve to win this way. The referee became the pivotal figure.
Asked if he had ever seen anything like it, O’Neill replied: “Well certainly not in any of the games that I have been involved in, particularly at this level, no. I expected him [the referee] to give an offside or a corner and to book the player as well . .”
Evans was booked which means he will miss the second leg in Basel on Sunday.
Having seen the replay of Fabian Schar’s fifth minute foul on Stuart Dallas, O’Neill also said the referee should have shown Schar a red card, rather than a yellow.
O’Neill accepted that there is nothing Northern Ireland can do about the decision. “Dwelling isn’t going to help us,” he said. “The most important thing is we use it in the right way and channel it on Sunday night.”
Evans himself described it as “disgraceful”. “I clearly didn’t put my hand up. I know it hit me on the back of the shoulder and I’m just absolutely gutted to be honest.
“He’s booked me which means I’m out of he second-leg as well which is devastating,” he added. “I’m absolutely devastated about the decision but the game in Basel is more important and I will be there to support them.”