Neymar’s fractured vertebra dents Brazil’s World Cup title hopes

Neymar cried as he was being stretchered off the field. He seemed to know what we didn’t yet. The pain was telling him loud and clear. His World Cup was over.

Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zuniga had delivered a flying knee to his back and sent the little playmaker crumpling to the ground during Brazil’s World Cup quarterfinal win over Los Cafeteros on Friday. The stretcher never stopped at the bench. It carried him off the field and straight down the player tunnel and out of this tournament.

Confirmation came not long thereafter, when Brazil’s team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar said that Neymar had broken his third vertebra. "It’s not serious in the sense that it doesn’t need surgery, but he’ll need to immobilize it to recover," Lasmar said. "Unfortunately, he’s not going to be able to play."

It was fairly obvious just as soon as he went down that it was serious. Zuniga is a big guy, and he’d gone through the lithe Neymar hard and mid-air in the 87th minute of Brazil’s 2-1 win. Zuniga went unpunished, and it’s hard to say if he did it on purpose. Yet it wasn’t so surprising. Referee Carlos Velasco Carballo had long since lost control of the game, letting it devolve into a glorified kickboxing contest.

"Not even a yellow card, nothing,” Brazil manager Luiz Felipez Scolari said of Zuniga’s challenge. "For Thiago, who was running in front of the goalkeeper, he gets a yellow card, so we can’t understand some things. But everyone knows Neymar was going to be hunted. For three matches that has been happening and we have been saying that, but no-one thinks that is the case."

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Velasco could have done far more to protect the players in this foul-infested affair — or merely to apply the rules properly and appropriately. He didn’t, and as a consequence, the tournament lost its two brightest stars in the span of just a few minutes. When Colombia was knocked out a short while after Neymar left the field, the tournament was also left in tears by James Rodriguez, its breakout star — who had scored six goals as the second-youngest player ever to do so at a World Cup, behind Pele. Rodriguez also sports the number 10 and is also 22 years old, just like Neymar. It was a sad day for this World Cup, which has been so full of vibrant soccer and whimsical attackers and unexpected games.

And Neymar’s exodus will have done nothing to soothe the frayed nerves of the Brazilians, who are hoping to finally win a World Cup on their home soil. Sure, they are in the semifinals against Germany now, in Belo Horizonte next Tuesday. But they’ll play without their captain Thiago Silva, who stupidly got his second yellow card of the tournament when he obstructed on David Ospina’s goal kick and is now suspended. And, of course, without Neymar, their spark plug and creator and top scorer, with four goals.

There are other players capable of running the attack — most likely the slumping Oscar — but none have dazzled on this stage and handled the unfathomable pressure with so much poise as Neymar, the Barcelona man. Brazil has yet to look entirely convincing. They went behind on an own-goal in their opener against Croatia, drew Mexico 0-0 and finally pushed through against Cameroon. Then, in the Round of 16, they needed penalties to dispatch Chile. And the game against Colombia hardly produced any more confidence. But Neymar was always there to ensure that they’d advance somehow, that they managed the result in the end, no matter how haggard they looked in getting it.

"We’ll miss him," a disappointed Oscar admitted after Brazil’s victory on Friday. "Whoever comes in in his place has to play as part of the team and beat Germany. The best thing we do is play as a team and I just hope that whoever comes in plays well."

But that’s not the only concern. It may seem premature, but it’s hard not to worry some about Neymar’s career. For a player as reliant on his scintillating speed, acceleration and balletic grace as he, a serious injury to his back could compromise and perhaps trivialize all the things that make him good and special.

While his injury is a big blow for Brazil and the aesthetics of this World Cup, it might be a bigger one yet for Neymar and his club, Barcelona, which is believed to have paid one of the highest transfer fees ever for him just a summer ago. Although Lasmar expects the recovery time to be at least a few weeks, it would be a particularly cruel outcome of this tournament if the man who helped it sizzle will suffer long-term effects by it.

FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.