The Republic of Ireland had yearned for a return to a grand tournament for the first time since the 2002 World Cup, but they fell behind in the second minute and, despite wholehearted effort, had to accept the superiority of Croatia. In view of encounters to come with Spain and Italy, the prospects have darkened. A result of this sort was cruel in its stern reminder of the challenges posed by an occasion of such importance.
There was a touch of altitude sickness in that early opener. The exasperation of the manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, could only be guessed at as Croatia took the lead with a disturbingly simple goal. Darijo Srna crossed from the right and a rather gentle header from Mario Mandzukic went past the goalkeeper, Shay Given.
For all the preparation and managerial scheming, the match had a mind of its own and, for a while, paid no heed to the notions of Trapattoni or, for that matter, his opposite number, Slaven Bilic. Set‑pieces might as well have been a mysterious innovation given the havoc they caused.
Trapattoni's men were level when an Aiden McGeady free-kick from the left was headed home by Sean St Ledger as his supposed marker Vedran Corluka caused him little inconvenience. The remarkable Irish supporters had scarcely been cowed even by the disturbing start.
Those fans made such an impression in noise and number as the match began that they might have been mistaken for followers of a host nation. While no fan would apologise for the spectacle, it was important for Trapattoni's side to stay calm and remember that their opponents are ranked eighth in the world. Ireland lie ten places below them.
The outcome was still far from a foregone conclusion, but the situation did suggest that Trapattoni had particular reason to take care. Prudence is certainly in his repertoire. With the onus on his team to attack at home, Ireland lost to Russia in the qualifiers, but they went on to hold those opponents to a goalless draw in Moscow.
Trapattoni would have been aghast at the initial laxity here. While unalloyed caution does not seem the likeliest method for advancing at Euro 2012, Ireland did need to find a foothold in this competition. They would have been exhilarated by this test. After all, the grand tournaments have been eluding them and someone such as the 31-year-old John O'Shea was making his first appearance on such a stage.
The manager had come very close to rectifying matters sooner. In a play-off with France for the 2010 World Cup finals, a handball by Thierry Henry went unnoticed in the buildup to the decisive goal from William Gallas. The current manager has, however, been in the post since February 2008 and the effectiveness is not overshadowed by injustices such as the one in Paris.
Even so, this cannot have been the type of game either Trapattoni or Bilic had in mind. The action, admittedly, did become more measured, particularly as Croatia developed the play with more poise. Two minutes from half-time, Nikica Jelavic put Croatia ahead. Luka Modric's drive was blocked by Stephen Ward, who did no more than set up the Everton forward to finish.
It was a contest that could have born no relation to the scheming of the managers, but it had incident and a generous serving goals by the standards of football at this level. We can be sure, even so, that neither manager would have been complimenting their players to any great extent at half-time.
Given the apparent randomness of events, it seemed natural that Trapattoni and Bilic would be calling for a more poised approach in the remainder of the fixture. If so, Ireland paid their manager no heed as they fell further behind in the 49th minute. Mario Madzukic's header came off the post and ricocheted off Given for an own goal.
By then, there was a flow to Croatia's play that was not being staunched. With the match appearing beyond Ireland's reach, Trapattoni still had to exert some influence. Substitutions followed shortly, with Kevin Doyle and McGeady giving way to Jon Walters and Simon Cox.
It was almost feasible that the manager's mind was turning to the available options for the remaining matches. There was, in any case, a severe problem in unsettling Croatia. Understandably, there was an air of command for a while.
Ireland, lacking nothing in spirit at least, did persevere, but circumstances looked implacably imposed when they were refused a penalty in the 63rd minute.
The Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, took no action even though the centre-half Gordon Schildenfeld went through Robbie Keane in his effort to reach the ball.
Ireland, undaunted, persevered, yet Croatia had only to maintain a professional approach. There was no call for risk or urgency as they went about completing their task. Trapattoni's men now face a job that is very likely to be beyond them. Their return to a grand stage had seen them muddle their lines.