BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – A penalty awarded for a disputed hand ball gave Switzerland a controversial 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland in the first leg of their World Cup playoff on Thursday.
A volley by Xherdan Shakiri struck Corey Evans’ shoulder 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 the penalty in the 58th minute, putting the Swiss in the driving seat to qualify for their fourth World Cup in a row.
Boos rang out at the final whistle as home fans directed their ire at the match official.
However, Switzerland dominated the match and gave a master class in one-touch football to pick apart their hosts 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 Shakiri proving a constant menace down the right.
A dangerous ball in the 18th minute from Shakiri picked out Haris Seferovic and the striker’s header was well saved by goalkeeper Michael McGovern.
There was palpable frustration from Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill on the sidelines and he would have been relieved it was scoreless at the break.
Seconds into the second half, Shakiri almost curled into the top corner, but the ball went narrowly wide.
The Swiss continued to pour forward and a wonderful ball by Blerim Dzemaili 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.
A header by Josh Magennis from Chris Brunt’s free kick in the 71st minute was the best they could muster, although the hosts appealed in vain for a penalty of their own in the 82nd minute when the ball came off Rodriguez.
The second leg will be played in Basel, Switzerland on Sunday.
It’s been 31 years since Northern Ireland last played at a World Cup and that run doesn’t look like ending any time soon.