BELFAST, Ireland — Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans thinks the contentious penalty awarded for handball during his team’s 1-0 loss to Switzerland on Thursday was "a worse decision" than the Thierry Henry handball which deprived neighbouring Republic of Ireland a spot at the 2010 World Cup.
A volley by Xherdan Shaqiri struck the shoulder of Evans’ brother Corey as the Northern Ireland midfielder attempted to block the shot. Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan pointed to the spot, sparking angry protests from the Northern Ireland players. Ricardo Rodriguez duly converted in the 58th minute for an away goal that put Switzerland in good position going into the return leg of qualifying for its fourth consecutive World Cup.
In 2009, striker Thierry Henry’s infamous and deliberate handball set up the goal that sent France to the 2010 World Cup at the expense of the Republic of Ireland.
Evans thinks the call in Belfast was worse.
"It’s a worse decision because the referee has actually made a call," Evans said. "It’s different if he didn’t see it, (but) he’s claiming that he did see something that didn’t happen, and that’s the hardest bit to take.
"It’s strange because I had a feeling the referee knew that he had made a wrong decision and I’m sure he was getting feed information throughout the game and he could tell with everybody else’s reaction that maybe he had made the wrong call."
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill bemoaned the lack of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology in the World Cup playoff series.
"It’s just staggering in this day and age when the stakes are so high at this level of the game that something like that is a game-changer," O’Neill said. "I spent three hours in a conference the other week at FIFA on Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) and certainly when you see what happened tonight you would certainly be an advocate of it."
VAR is still at the experimental stage and is currently being used in the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A among other leagues around the world. It will be seen at the World Cup finals, but that was no consolation for O’Neill’s team on Thursday.
"It should be used for anything which is a defining decision in the game, which is clearly what we saw tonight," O’Neill said. "A penalty in those circumstances and if you are going to give it, VAR clearly would have cleared that up and said it’s clearly not a penalty."
Swiss manager Vladimir Petkovic said the penalty decision shouldn’t overshadow the performance of his team.
"After all we deserved to win," he said. "We should have scored more, (but) sadly we missed."
Switzerland dominated the match with a demonstration of one-touch football to pick apart the defence in the first half, helped by the fact that Northern Ireland afforded them far too much space.
Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was teed up twice in the opening 15 minutes but his attempts from outside the area both cleared the crossbar.
The Swiss made plenty of progress down the flanks, with the combination of captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and Shaqiri proving a constant threat on the right.
A dangerous ball in the 18th from Shaqiri picked out Haris Seferovic and the striker’s header was well saved by goalkeeper Michael McGovern.
Seconds into the second half, Shaqiri almost curled a shot into the top corner, but the ball went narrowly wide.
The Swiss continued to pour forward and Blerim Dzemaili’s ball in the 54th minute was missed by the sliding Seferovic with the goal gaping.
The disputed goal came four minutes later and despite a more energetic tempo from the hosts afterward, they failed to create anything meaningful.
The return leg will be played in Basel, Switzerland on Sunday.
It’s been 31 years since Northern Ireland last played at a World Cup.
"We are kind of in a situation where … we are a little bit of a victim and we’ve got nothing to lose," O’Neill said. "We will see how the Swiss deal with that on their own territory."