Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik broke Northern Ireland hearts on Sunday after rifling home the only goal in a 1-0 win in their Euro 2016 Group C opener in Nice.
Poland had never won a game before at the European Championship, with three draws and three losses over two appearances in 2008 and 2012 –- the latter a tournament that they co-hosted with Ukraine.
Now they can look forward to a spicy tie with neighbours Germany in the Stade de France on June 16 with eyes on a spot in the last 16.
“We have been preparing for them for a long time, we prepare to win against Gemany,” said Poland coach Adam Nawalka.
“It’s just the beginning, the next matches will show that we can play even better,” said man-of-the-match Grzegorz Krychowiak.
On a day when Poland’s brightest star Robert Lewandowski was stifled by Northern Ireland, the rest of the team stood up for duty, with Sevilla midfielder Krychowiak in particular shining in a playmaker role.
“The team has realised that we won’t win as individuals but we can achieve something as 23 players in a squad,” said Krychowiak, who also starred in Sevilla’s Europa League title win last month.
“This team is a collective,” added Nawalka.
The result dents Northern Ireland’s pre-tournament hopes of qualifying from a tough group as one of the four best third-placed teams, with a win now looking essential against Ukraine in Lyon the same day.
Nawalka’s side dominated the game but took time to break down a stubborn defence, Milik’s strike early in the second half coming after several missed chances in the first.
For Michael O’Neill’s side, it was a disappointing end to their first ever European Championship match, and first major tournament appearance since the 1986 World Cup.
UNDEFEATED RUN ENDED
They entered the game unbeaten in a record 12 matches, but although they held their more vaunted opponents scoreless until halftime, they struggled to win any possession in the impressive Stadium Nice.
From the off Poland dominated the game but struggled to penetrate close to goal against a back-four stoutly marshalled by West Brom’s Jonny Evans.
With Bayern Munich star Lewandowski bottled up by Northern Ireland’s rearguard action and Milik misfiring on several occasions, it was a frustrating opening period for Poland.
Top scorers in qualifying for Euro 2016, they managed just two shots on target in the opening period.
The first was on the half-hour when a left-footed drive by Milik from outside the box was easily parried by Michael McGovern.
Milik should also have scored after a cut-back by Lukasz Piszczek put him in space 10 yards out but he sliced high and wide.
Then as a scrappy half drew to a close, Poland almost broke the deadlock when a left-foot snapshot by the always lively Bartosz Kapustka was superbly tipped over by McGovern.
The defensive approach of Northern Ireland, whose striker Kyle Lafferty was their only player in the opposing half for much of the game, was breached soon after halftime.
Just six minutes after the break Milik made no mistake when firing through the legs of Craig Cathcart after Jakub Blaszczykowski found him unmarked on the edge of the area.
Blaszczykowski had his own chance to double Poland’s tally on 68 minutes but steered wide after Milik had stroked a ball behind the Northern Ireland defence.
Krzysztof Maczynski, Milik again, and Krychowiak had chances to put Poland 2-0 up in the last 15 minutes but all narrowly missed.
Northern Ireland rarely looked like scoring although a speculative off-target scissor kick from Lafferty gave their raucous fans some hope, while captain Steven Davis almost got on the end of a through ball late on.
Poland (4-4-1-1):Wojciech Szczesny; Lukasz Piszczek, Kamil Glik, Michal Pazdan, Artur Jedrzejczyk; Jakub Blaszczykowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Krzysztof Maczynski, Bartosz Kapustka; Arkadiusz Milik; Robert Lewandowski (captain)
Coach: Adam Nawalka (POL)
Northern Ireland (4-5-1): Michael McGovern; Conor McLaughlin, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley; Paddy McNair, Oliver Norwood, Steven Davis (captain), Chris Baird, Shane Ferguson; Kyle Lafferty
Coach: Michael O’Neill (NIR)
Referee: Ovidiu Hategan (ROU)