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I'd do anything to lead Northern Ireland to the World Cup, says Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill relished watching the 2018 World Cup. Already highly motivated to take Northern Ireland to the biggest football show on earth, he says viewing events in Russia from afar has inspired him even more to guide his country to the finals in the future.

The 49-year-old has happy memories as a teenager seeing Northern Ireland play in the 1982 and 1986 tournaments.

But for a controversial penalty decision awarded to Switzerland in a play-off last November, O'Neill could have been the first manager since Billy Bingham to lead the country to the finals.

Rather than take charge of his side in Moscow, though, he worked as a pundit for RTE and BBC during the competition, analysing the technical, tactical and emotional elements of what turned out to be a cracking World Cup.

"I'd do anything to be part of a World Cup," said O'Neill, who famously led Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals in France.

"It was a fabulous tournament in Russia and watching it brought back so many memories of our experience in France at the Euros two years ago.

"The World Cup is even bigger with the magnitude of the games and it would be amazing to take Northern Ireland to the tournament one day.

"It's still for me the biggest event of all and shows why international football is so important, in particular with the backdrop of club football which is becoming more and more money orientated.

"In this World Cup, perhaps more than any previous tournaments, we really saw what it meant to the players to play for their country, including the really top, top players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and how they reacted to going out of the tournament.

"These guys have won everything at club level, but to be part of a World Cup is extra special even for them, so for Northern Ireland players it would just be incredible to be involved and I know our supporters would love an experience like that."

Throughout his time as Northern Ireland boss, O'Neill has been renowned for set-pieces which proved hugely important in this World Cup, including in the final when France defeated Croatia 4-2.

He said: "The significance of the set-pieces was massive, especially in relation to the first goal.

"Given the number of goals scored by set-pieces, however, there wasn't many through great improvisation or coming up with something different.

"A lot of them came down to really good deliveries from corners or free-kicks.

"If you have a player with that level of quality who can deliver consistently from set-pieces you are going to cause problems. Even in the World Cup final, the first goal for France came from a free-kick, as did Croatia's equaliser."

On tactics and formations, O'Neill added: "Systems-wise, how the teams played, I wouldn't say I learned a lot that I didn't already know. No one did anything dramatically different.

"The big thing for me was that it was the individual players at the top end that made the difference. You look at Uruguay and when they lost Edinson Cavani for the quarter-final with France, they looked half as effective. That was the reality.

"What we didn't see bar England's demolition of Panama and Russia hammering Saudi Arabia was anyone really getting a tanking. That shows how smaller countries have found ways to compete with bigger nations.

"If you don't have the big players you have to find other ways to win, and often that is by being difficult to beat and maximising your set-pieces. In all honesty, that's what we have done and worked it to our advantage."

Had VAR (Video Assistant Referee) been available at Windsor Park in the first leg of the World Cup play-off, the contentious Swiss penalty which decided the tie would surely not have been given and Northern Ireland may have made it to the finals.

Back then, Romanian official Ovidiu Hategan felt Corry Evans handled the ball in the box when Xherdan Shaqiri's shot hit his shoulder.

VAR was used in Russia at the World Cup for the first time and in the final led to France winning a highly disputed and critical penalty, which was netted by Antoine Griezmann when the score was 1-1.

Argentine referee Nestor Pitana awarded the spot-kick against the Croatians for handball having looked at replays after originally not giving that decision. O'Neill's verdict?

"I liked VAR but I didn't like the way it was used in the final for the penalty," he said.

"When the penalty was given against us in the play-off with Switzerland, that's when a referee can go to VAR and see that it was the wrong decision.

"I think VAR should be used to verify a decision, not to bring the decision back as was the case in the final. Where we saw VAR being used with penalties more often than not it was when the ball struck an arm. I felt the one given against Croatia in the final was very harsh.

"I liked the way it was used in most instances but I thought that the penalty in the final compromised the system.

"The other thing they need to think about for all these types of handballs is should we give a free-kick in the box instead of a penalty?

"I just think that giving a penalty like that is a very severe punishment.

"We used to give a free-kick in the box for obstruction, so is there a way with handball where we say it doesn't merit a penalty but it merits a free-kick which still offers an opportunity to score a goal?

"I don't want the game to be over complicated, but if a game is decided by a fairly innocuous handball then I think that's quite harsh."

• Northern Ireland midfielder Rachel Furness has agreed a new deal with Reading FC.

The Northern Ireland Under-19 women's side finished off their Home International Development Tournament with a 100 per cent record after a penalty shootout win against England.

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