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Knee-marred in bruteful game

South American giants Brazil and Argentina remain on course for their “dream derby” World Cup final. But the much-anticipated showdown between Barcelona club-mates Neymar and Leo Messi is off the agenda.

While Argentina were forging a solid path past Belgium in Brasilia — Gonzalo Higuain scored the lone goal — Neymar was being flown back to Rio de Janeiro by air ambulance from Fortaleza.

When Neymar was carried off in Brazil’s 2-1 defeat of Colombia on Friday night, he was also carried out of the World Cup.

Brazil’s superstar inspiration cracked the third lumbar vertebra when battered from behind, late in the second half, by Colombia defender Juan Camilo Zuniga. This was the third crunching assault to which Neymar had been subject under the acquiescently incompetent refereeing of Spanish official Carlos Velasco Carballo.

Neymar was carried away and Brazil’s dreams of a sixth World Cup in front of their own fans to exorcise the spectre of 1950 may have gone with him.

Zuniga risks going down in the annals of Brazilian football infamy with the Portuguese defender Joao Morais who, effectively, kicked Pele out of the 1966 World Cup. The Colombian said later: “I didn’t intend to hurt him but I was defending the colours of my country. I am sorry for his injury and I pray to God that he recovers very quickly.”

An X-ray clarified the split in bone, which needs to knit and repair before the Barcelona superstar can think of playing again. A specialist estimated that, as a young man, Neymar could hope to be ready to restart in five or six weeks.

That will be good news for Barcelona but it spells disaster for Brazil. They had leaned inordinately on the 22-year-old without whom they would not even have been playing Colombia.

Neymar scored the goal that put Brazil ahead of Croatia in the opening match and then struck twice in the group-clinching victory over Cameroon. Next came his nerveless penalty conversion against Chile in the second round.

The brilliance of Neymar is his simple love of the game. Hence his loss is not only a grievous loss to Brazil but to the entire 2014 World Cup finals. It’s as if a light has gone out and these headlamp-bright finals are suddenly dimmed.

The Barcelona forward is everywhere in Brazil, either on the advertisement hoardings or on the backs of fans’ shirts or in the popular “hairstyle” wigs and hats all over the streets. Manager Luis Felipe Scolari sought to explain this unique talent after the defeat of the Chileans in the preceding South American derby.

Scolari said: “He’s a simple boy. He likes playing football, so he does it as if he’s playing with his friends at Santos. That’s how he sees it because he loves his job. So when it comes to it, he forgets it’s a penalty shootout at the World Cup and treats it as if it were a pick-up game with his friends.”

Neymar took a battering from the Chileans, and Brazil’s medical staff raced successfully against time to restore him to fitness in time for the Colombians. Perhaps they did not quite succeed. Perhaps he was caught three times in half an hour because he was not able to move with his usual intuitive agility.

The injury will exacerbate discussion over the levels and values of punishment. Zuniga did not collect so much as a yellow card for his violent assault, and Fifa’s disciplinary committee has opened an inquiry, summoning reports from the various match delegates.

Any punishment for Zuniga would be no consolation for Brazilian fans if the absences of both Neymar and suspended captain Thiago Silva weaken them fatally for the semi-final against a tactically astute Germany in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

Brazilian distress was put into words by President Dilma Rousseff who sent Neymar a message of national regret, saying: “It broke my heart and the heart of every Brazilian watching the pain on your face at Castel„ but we also saw the immense strength of a great warrior, who will never let himself be held back even when wounded.

“I know that, like every Brazilian, you will never give up, and sooner than one can imagine, you will be back to fill our souls with joy and our history with triumph. May God give you strength and always protect you.”

Rousseff also sent a message of encouragement to Scolari who has little options but to employ the Neymar incident to try to instil the sort of “siege mentality” that Sir Alex Ferguson used to employ to such powerful effect at Manchester United. Purporting that the world was against them, Ferguson would whip up an extra stratum of psychological anger and resistance.

But Neymar’s value was not only in his talent on the ball but the confidence injection his presence provided so that all his team-mates felt that, as long as he was on the pitch, nothing was beyond them.

Home advantage plus the explosive talent of Neymar would have established Brazil’s status as favourites against Germany. Suddenly, with the Germans demonstrating in their 1-0 win over France a tactical intelligence and versatility beyond any other World Cup survivor, the odds do not look anything like as certain.

Argentina, however, ended a run of three quarterfinal defeats by overcoming an ideas-lite Belgian side 1-0 in the Brazilian capital. Argentina lost the influential Angel di Maria to a thigh muscle strain in the first half. But Messi was still fit and smiling at the final whistle.

With Neymar removed from the fray, he had more than one reason.

Colombia defender Juan Camilo Zuniga challenges Brazilís Neymar who receives a knee in the back, goes down and writhes in pain. Zuniga was not booked. (AFP and Reuters)

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