How devastating for Northern Ireland that a bitterly disputed penalty award has kept them out of the World Cup.
That penalty decision meant that the NI team lost by a single one goal margin in a two-leg play off against Switzerland.
Northern Ireland’s hopes of travelling to Russia next year were dashed by the ruling by the Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan in Windsor Park last week.
They held the Swiss to a goal-less draw at home in Basel last night, which was a commendable result, but not enough in light of Thursday’s defeat in Belfast.
It is particularly painful to have fallen just short of the World Cup after such a lengthy spell of good form under the hugely popular manager Michael O’Neill (the deserved recipient this year of an MBE).
He has been in charge for almost six years, and has taken the national team to the Euros, which was its greatest success since the 1980s – that heady time when NI under Billy Bingham qualified for two World Cup tournaments in quick succession, 1982 and 1986.
When Northern Ireland played again at a top level in France last year, the early years of this century seemed a distant memory, when NI went 16 games without a win (including 10 without a goal).
O’Neill said last night that he was “heartbroken” at the narrow failure to reach the World Cup. He said his players had been asked for a performance based on “character, and courage and bravery” and “we got all that and more”.
As ever, the Green and White Army supported the team to the hilt.
What a sense of solidarity there is for the team, which is always facing difficult odds, representing a country with less than two million people and typically playing against opponents who can draw on a population pool several times larger.