LONDON - France received chilling notice that the road to post-World Cup redemption will be long and hard when they lost 1-0 to Belarus in Paris on Friday, while Portugal threw away two points in a frantic 4-4 draw at home to Cyprus.
England and Italy were able to start repairing their reputations with contrasting wins in their first Euro 2012 qualifiers and Spain swatted away Liechtenstein 4-0 with an ease befitting their status as world and European champions.
England played with the quick passing and invention that eluded them in South Africa as they beat Bulgaria 4-0 at Wembley, Jermain Defoe netting a smartly taken hat-trick and Adam Johnson getting the fourth in the Group G clash.
Italy were almost embarrassed but were ultimately able to celebrate a 2-1 victory after coming from a goal down away to Estonia in Group C.
There were wins too for Germany, Russia and the Netherlands - who provided a heartwarming moment with the goalscoring return of Ruud van Nistelrooy - but the night's compelling story was in Paris, where it became abundantly clear that a change of coach alone will not change French fortunes.
This was a miserable night for the home side, as a much changed team from the World Cup was cheered on to the pitch but roundly booed off it.
Laurent Blanc's first competitive match since replacing Raymond Domenech after a World Cup campaign that veered between farce and fiasco offered few positives as a late goal from Sergei Kislyak consigned them to a Group D defeat.
"I want to thank the fans who came here to support us," France captain Florent Malouda told the angry crowd.
Portugal were among the other heavyweight teams to flop in South Africa and missing the injured Cristiano Ronaldo and suspended coach Carlos Queiroz they flirted with disaster against Cyprus in Guimaraes.
The home side twice fell behind before hauling themselves 4-3 ahead only to concede an equaliser to Andreas Avraam two minutes from time.
While Europe's first big night of competitive international action since the World Cup was a chance for atonement for some, it was a celebration for the three big success stories of a tournament dominated by the continent.
Spain led the way as two goals from Fernando Torres and one from World Cup hero David Villa - who moved to within one goal of equalling Raul's scoring record for the country - helped them brush past Liechtenstein in a Group I match in Vaduz.
David Silva was the other scorer in the opening match of the defence of the title Spain won in Austria and Switzerland in 2008.
The Netherlands, beaten by the Spanish in the Johannesburg final, saw off San Marino 5-0 in Group E.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored a hat-trick but it was the returning Van Nistelrooy who stole Dutch hearts, scoring in injury-time after being recalled to the squad for the first time in two years.
The 34-year-old was given a standing ovation as he came on and capped his return with an injury time strike.
"If it comes back again when you really thought it was not possible this is an exceptional moment," Van Nistelrooy said.
Germany, third at the World Cup, had a tougher night against more serious opponents in Group A but came through 1-0 against Belgium with a goal from the ever reliable Miroslav Klose.
Their main rivals in Group A will be Turkey, who won 3-0 away to Kazakhstan.
In the night's other David and Goliath clash, Russia grabbed a workmanlike 2-0 win away to Andorra in Group B thanks to two goals from Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Ireland, who felt themselves cheated out of a place at the World Cup when Thierry Henry's handball set up the winner for France in their play-off, joined Russia at the top of the group after escaping with a 1-0 win away to Armenia.
While Blanc was suffering the ignominy of defeat, Italy's new coach Cesare Prandelli was able to celebrate - but only after an almighty scare.
The hosts opened the scoring in the 31st minute when Sergei Zenjov struck after Italian keeper Salvatore Sirigu lost his grip on the wet ball.
The 2006 world champions just managed to halt their seven-game win drought thanks to second-half goals from Antonio Cassano and Leonardo Bonucci.
England's commanding win over Bulgaria will have come as a relief to another Italian coach in Fabio Capello, whose position was called into question after England's limp exit to Germany in the World Cup.
"Overall the performance was really, really good," Capello said. "The movement without the ball was fantastic and Defoe is always very important for us."