The local clocks showed exactly 6.42 pm when the 40,000 crowd at St. Jakob Park in Basle and countless millions watching on TV momentarily held their collective breath. After a challenge with Czech defender Zdenek Grygera in the UEFA EURO 2008 opening match, Swiss striker Alexander Frei collapsed to the turf writhing in pain. What appeared an innocuous challenge took on an entirely more sinister dimension on examination of the replays, as the slow motion showed the 28-year-old striker's knee take a brief but sickening twist in a direction nature never intended.

Even the most hard-bitten fans were moved at the images of Frei, weeping copious tears of pain and supported by the team doctor and masseur, limping from the field before the half-time whistle. The striker must have sensed these were his last seconds in the limelight at this tournament. The Borussia Dortmund hitman, plagued by injury this term and restricted to just 13 Bundesliga appearances following pelvic surgery, had suffered a new and even more devastating setback, his injury later diagnosed as a partially ruptured ligament in his left knee.

It was almost as if the hopes of an entire nation hobbled out of the arena along with Frei, the captain and his country's all-time leading international scorer with 39 goals in 59 appearances. The subs' bench rose as one and ran to their stricken skipper, begging him to say it would all be okay. A stunned silence descended over the previously boisterous crowd, the half-time whistle almost lost in a fog of gloom. "The injury undoubtedly represents a shock," summarised coach Kobi Kuhn afterwards. "Losing our captain is a catastrophe."

The day had begun full of optimism for the Swiss, red flags with the distinctive white cross fluttering everywhere as the nation geared up for an opening day festival. The fans, many in national team shirts, flocked to the city centres as a fine atmosphere bubbled up in advance of the 13th UEFA European Championship. Some 54 years have passed since the Alpine confederation hosted a footballing event of similar stature, the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ which ended in Germany's oft-cited "miracle" triumph in Berne.

All to play for
However, the fateful 42nd minute in the opening match applied a pinprick to the bubble of optimism. Hakan Yakin duly replaced Frei, but the Swiss were unable to translate their territorial domination into goals after the restart. Johan Vonlanthen declined the best chance of all, blasting against the bar from eight yards after Czech keeper Petr Cech could only parry a Tranquillo Barnetta effort.

The Eastern Europeans focused on tight defending and looked for opportunities to strike on the break. Vaclav Sverkos, a second-half substitute for subdued Jan Koller, exploited the Czechs' best opening on 71 minutes, threading the ball past Diego Benaglio in the Switzerland goal, thus delivering the second hammer blow for the home team.

Frei had returned to the bench by this time, frequently leaping from his seat and pounding the earth with his newly-acquired crutches in frustration as chance after chance went begging. The pain in his knee was dulled by medication, but little could be done about the pain of being unable to help his team in their hour of need. "I know how he feels," sympathised Koller, "the same thing happened to me at the 2006 World Cup. I wish Alexander Frei a speedy recovery."

The Swiss now turn their attention to Wednesday's crunch meeting with Turkey, defeated 2-0 by impressive Portugal in Geneva on Saturday evening. "Portugal lost the opening match four years ago but still made the final," Kuhn pointed out, "we're not giving up yet."

And Marco Streller, contemplating the immediate future without regular strike partner Frei, was a model of gritty determination: "Just watch us now! We'll be playing for Alex from now on."