The home side had been booed off at half-time but they improved to score in the 64th minute through Predrag Mijatovic, of Real Madrid, before holding off the visitors' spirited late rally. Victory in their first match established Yugoslavia as strong contenders in the group, though Ireland can take heart from their efforts in frustrating gifted opponents with some composed possession football.
They were given little by the Swedish referee, who turned down two confident appeals for penalties in the second half. At the final whistle several Irish players made their feelings known to the officials and Mick McCarthy, the manager, said later: "I remember a match in Macedonia in which two penalties like that were given against us. I'm very happy with my team and delighted with the performance but we lost."
While ticks and even gold stars could be place alongside names like Roy Keane, Damien Duff, Mark Kinsella and Gary Breen, there was a black mark fore Liverpool's Steve Staunton, sadly transferring his club form to international level. His positioning at left-back was clearly at fault for the goal, which was by no means the only occasion on which Mijatovic had the beating of him, and Staunton regularly committed the sin of giving the ball away.
Yugoslavia, not allowed to take part in the last two European Championship finals, have a point to prove this time. They could be top of the group by the time they meet Croatia in March, while the Republic's key dates are now the return match in June and a visit to Croatia in September.
There was a reminder of the tensions still evident in the region before kick-off last night when the Serbs in the home crowd booed not only the Irish anthem but Yugoslavia's as well.
Their team were not on song for the whole of the first half, in which the one Irish failing was a tendency to put themselves under pressure by conceding free-kicks within shooting range. A deep rumble would then run round the Red Star Stadium as Sinisa Mihajlovic prepared to shoot from any distance. Twice he found Shay Given well enough positioned to collect the ball without adjusting his feet and a third time Given had to cling on to the ball, driven along the ground as the forwards stretched to get a touch.
At half-time Yugoslavia brought on a third attacker in Darko Kovacevic and the extra width across the front line helped produce a goal within 20 minutes. Jovan Stankovic's deep cross may have been touched on, but Staunton should still have not allowed Mijatovic to steal in behind him and bury a fine, low shot. The warning had been there only a few minutes earlier, the Real Madrid man cutting inside Staunton and shooting dangerously across goal.
Ireland might have been given the first of two penalties before that: Jason McAteer, working the right flank tirelessly in a five-man midfield, chased Keane's diagonal pass and may have been clipped by the goalkeeper's rash challenge as the ball ran away from goal.
McCarthy sent on the strikers Tony Cascarino and David Connolly, plus the midfielder Keith O'Neill to set up an exciting finish. Cascarino won a stream of high balls but Kinsella's overhead kick that appeared to be handled by Mihajlovic was the nearest thing to an equaliser.
YUGOSLAVIA (3-5-2):Kralj (Porto); S Mihajlovic (Lazio), Djukic (Valencia), Djorovic (Celta Vigo); J Stankovic (Mallorca), Jakanovic (Tenerife), Jugovic (Atletico Madrid), D Stojkovic (Najoya), D Stankovic (Lazio); P Mijatovic (Real Madrid), S Milosevic (Zaragoza). Substitutes: Drulovic (Porto) for Milosevic, 77, Grozdic (Obilic) for D Stankovic, 84, D Kovacevic (Sociedad) for Stojkovic, 46.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-5-1): Given (Newcastle); Irwin (Manchester United), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Breen (Coventry), Staunton (Liverpool); McAteer (Liverpool), R Keane (Man Utd), Kinsella (Charlton), McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Duff (Blackburn); N Quinn (Sunderland). Substitutes: O'Neill (Norwich) for McAteer, 83; Connolly (Wolves) for McLoughlin, 72; Cascarino (Nancy) for Quinn, 72.
Referee: K Nielsen (Sweden).