Northern Ireland penalty pain will echo through history
Switzerland 0-0 Northern Ireland (Switzerland win 1-0 on aggregate)
Northern Ireland football will forever be haunted by the spectre of referee Ovidiu Hategan.
The Romanian official, who awarded Switzerland the controversial first-leg penalty at Windsor Park last Thursday, will go down as the man who ended Northern Ireland's World Cup dream.
- Watch: That controversial handball that gave Switzerland victory over Northern Ireland in the World Cup play-off
Ricardo Rodriguez's spot kick in Belfast was enough to see Switzerland qualify 1-0 on aggregate for the World Cup finals, following last night's scoreless draw at the St Jakob-Park in Basel.
Michael O'Neill's brave warriors fought heroically in vain to score the goal needed to keep their World Cup aspirations alive. Right at the death, Jonny Evans had a header cleared off the line - and it had to be Rodriguez who was Switzerland's saviour. It just wasn't meant to be.
O'Neill had promised that, following a rather nervous and flat display at Windsor, his players would raise their game and give a performance the country could be proud of. They did just that.
Switzerland may have created the more clear-cut chances but it was Northern Ireland who won plenty of acclaim for giving their all in terrible conditions.
The players and backroom team were crestfallen at the final whistle as the 34,000 Swiss fans waved their flags and celebrated with the jubilant players in red who had just secured their passage through to Russia next summer.
Steven Davis sank to his knees, absolutely distraught.
Boss O'Neill, though, was soon picking him up and embracing his proud skipper, consoling the man who has led his team for five years with such distinction.
The Northern Ireland manager made sure he then went round and hugged every single player and member of his staff, having some special words for Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley.
This was not how O'Neill wanted his World Cup campaign to end.
The Swiss, as expected, started the same team that won in such controversial circumstances in Belfast while O'Neill made four changes.
Aaron Hughes came in for Conor McLaughlin to win his 109th cap and take over from the great Bobby Moore as the UK's most capped defender, George Saville was given his first Northern Ireland start in place of the suspended Corry Evans, while Jamie Ward and Conor Washington were preferred ahead of Kyle Lafferty and Josh Magennis.
The skies of Basel erupted with thunder and spectacular lightning just three hours before kick-off and the torrential rain was relentless throughout the afternoon. The pitch was saturated. The St Jakob Park groundstaff worked tirelessly right up until kick-off - forking and then sanding the surface. An hour before the start, German referee Felix Brych inspected the pitch - and only gave the match the go-ahead after a second look.
The pitch was bumpy and brutal to play on, the rain continued to pour down and there were 1,800 members of the Green and White Army packed into a tight corner of the stadium singing and chanting their hearts out while hundreds more were scattered amongst the home supporters. Northern Ireland fancied their chances of a serious upset.
The visitors had more attacking threat during the first three minutes of last night's game than they did throughout the first leg. Davis played a dangerous cross into the box for Ward and the Swiss just about cleared their lines. Brunt struck a thunderous shot from 30 yards, which was heading for the top corner only for Yann Sommer to make a brilliant save and then, from the resulting corner, Stuart Dallas fired just over from outside the box.
The Swiss, though, showed serious attacking intent on five minutes when Haris Seferovic saw his glancing header from a Xherdan Shaqiri cross just go narrowly wide of Michael McGovern's post. But it was just the start of a series of misses for the Benfica striker.
Brunt received a deserved yellow card for a crunching late tackle on the rampaging right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner after just seven minutes and then McAuley had to make a brilliant interception and clearance from Blerim Dzemaili, who was just seven yards out and ready to pull the trigger.
Ward and Washington brought much-needed urgency to the Northern Ireland team while Dallas, who had been on crutches when the team flew into Basel on Friday, was playing his best game for his country - enjoying the freedom of moving between both flanks.
The Swiss were likewise using the flanks well with Shaqiri being given far too much room to work his magic on the right, while Steven Zuber and Rodriguez were working Hughes hard on his record-breaking night.
Northern Ireland had to soak up pressure and there were decent chances for Seferovic and Zuber but the back four of McAuley, Evans, Brunt and Hughes made sure they were strong in the aerial challenges and made the blocks when needed. McGovern was a safe pair of hands in goal - although back passes were difficult to contend with.
Just seconds before half-time, Northern Ireland were awarded a free kick 25 yards out after Ward was brought down by Swiss bad boy Fabian Schar but the West Brom defender, who scored from a set piece against the Czech Republic last September, struck his effort well over.
The Swiss continued to bombard Northern Ireland at the start of the second half but Schar, who was cautioned for a savage challenge on Dallas in the first leg, was once again lucky the referee was so lenient, and Brych didn't even whistle for a two-footed lunge on the Leeds winger.
Evans and Hughes made yet more important blocks before Northern Ireland came so close to scoring on 53 minutes. Ward was found down the right wing and his excellent delivery into the box found Washington perfectly but the QPR striker's header was just wide of the post.
Home coach Vladimir Petkovic, obviously unhappy the Swiss hadn't broken the deadlock, sent on striker Admir Mehmedi for midfielder Dzemaili.
But it was George Saville who nearly opened his international account when a Washington cut back found in space in the box but his shot lacked the power to trouble Sommer.
With Shaqiri being taken off and O'Neill having thrown Paddy McNair on for Washington, big McAuley was pushed forward to play up front alongside substitute Josh Magennis. This was O'Neill going for it.
Seferovic's miserable night was over when Breel Embolo took his place and he was booed off the pitch, much to the disgust of his team-mates and manager.
Embolo had a close-range effort expertly saved by McGovern, but then came the moment in injury time Northern Ireland had been waiting for. Evans had a header destined for the back of the net kicked off the line by Rodriguez following a Brunt corner which had been cleared and then played back in.
The heartache etched on the Northern Ireland players' faces was clear to see. Then came the final whistle and the realisation that it was the end of the World Cup dream.
And the beginning of the recurring nightmare of ref Ovidiu Hategan's shocking decision.
Switzerland: Sommer, Lichtsteiner, Schar, Akanji, Rodriguez, Shaqiri (Freuler, 80 mins), Zakaria, Xhaka, Zuber, Dzemaili (Mehmedi, 61 mins), Seferovic (Embolo, 86 mins). Unused subs: Hitz, Lacroix, Elvedi, Lang, Behrami, G Fernandes, Gavranovic, E Fernandes, Burki.
Northern Ireland: McGovern, Hughes, J Evans, McAuley, Brunt, Ward (Jones, 75 mins), Davis, Norwood (Magennis, 75 mins), Saville, Dallas, Washington (McNair, 82 mins). Unused subs: Mannus, McLaughlin, Ferguson, Hodson, K Lafferty, Paton, Lund, McArdle, Carroll.
Man of the match: George Saville
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)