BELO HORIZONTE (Reuters) - Hosts Brazil suffered a huge blow when they lost leading forward Neymar for the rest of the World Cup through injury on Friday as they set up an epic-looking semi-final against Europe’s biggest remaining team Germany.
Brazil’s poster-boy, in terrific form with four goals at the tournament, fractured a vertebra near the end of a 2-1 quarter-final win over Colombia and will be out for several weeks.
“It doesn’t need surgery, but he’ll need to immobilize it to recover,” team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar said.
The news dampened the host nation’s celebrations, given the team’s reliance on the 22-year-old Barcelona forward’s skill and talismanic presence. Many bookmakers now have Brazil and Germany as joint favorites at around 9/4.
“It’s the worst possible news. Neymar is so important to us. It is going to be so difficult against Germany now,” said shocked student Fabian Ruiz, 19, dressed in a yellow Brazil shirt and quaffing beer with friends in a Belo Horizonte street.
“They must do it for him. We all have to unite now.”
Brazil face their biggest test of the tournament in the semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday against Germany, who defeated France in their quarter-final earlier on Friday.
The clash of styles and continents will excite fans around the world, but Neymar’s absence is a big disappointment.
He writhed in pain and was taken off the pitch on a stretcher after receiving a knee in the back from Colombia defender Juan Camilo Zuniga. Fans gathered outside the hospital in Fortaleza shouting “Be strong” as Neymar was wheeled in.
“I hope it’s nothing serious, let’s pray to God. He is a great talent for Brazil and for the world,” Zuniga said.
COLOMBIA‘S DREAM OVER
The five-time champion’s victory ended Colombia’s dream run to their first quarter-final in a passionate and physical game.
First, Brazil captain Thiago Silva bundled in Neymar’s corner with his waist after seven minutes to settle his nervy team mates. Then a pumped-up David Luiz scored with a sublime 69th minute free kick to put Brazil two goals ahead.
Colombia’s man-of-the-moment James Rodriguez pulled his side back into the match from the penalty spot, his sixth goal of the tournament, with just over 10 minutes remaining.
But Brazil’s passion and will saw them hold firm.
“It was a great match, both teams played beautiful football,” said the emotional Luiz, who prayed on the pitch and hugged Rodriguez in consolation at the end.
Rodriguez, the target of rough treatment from the Brazilians, wept distraughtly at the end. But he will long be remembered as one of the great players of this World Cup.
“We wanted to carry on, but we hold our heads high,” he said. “We left our skins out there.”
Predictably, Brazil came to a standstill during the game, with businesses closed and cans rattling in empty streets as locals packed into homes, bars and beachside fanzones.
The final whistle signaled a cacophony of parties and fireworks in a nation whose people believe they are destined to win a sixth World Cup on home soil. That joy, though, was quickly tempered by the news about Neymar.
In a further worry for Brazil, they will be without captain Thiago Silva for the Germany game after a yellow card for a needless foul on goalkeeper David Ospina.
In the earlier quarter-final in Rio de Janeiro, defender Mats Hummels shook off the effects of flu and fever to win a surprisingly subdued match against France with a well-steered 13th minute header from a free kick.
It gave Germany a remarkable fourth successive World Cup semi-final spot.
“I hope our ride isn’t over yet and I hope we’ll be back here,” the 25-year-old Hummels said, referring to the July 13 final, also at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium
He brushed off a challenge from France’s Raphael Varane, appearing to push him lightly, to meet the ball perfectly before wheeling away in delight after securing a dream early lead. Though perennially competitive, the Germans have not won football’s ultimate crown since 1990 despite having a bigger pool talent since the unification of West and East.
‘Les Bleus’ looked uninspired but did have their moments, not least a stinging last-gasp shot by striker Karim Benzema that goalkeeper Manuel Neuer stopped one-handed. “That was just an automatic reaction,” said the modest Neuer.
In truth, Germany, whose team showed no ill effects of a flu virus menacing their camp in recent days, never looked in great danger of losing and substitute Andre Schuerrle wasted two chances to secure a more flattering scoreline.
Though losing once more to old rivals Germany was painful, France have at least restored some pride after the embarrassment of in-fighting and a first round exit in 2010.
“We had our chances. But they had more experience than we did. They had us under control,” said coach Didier Deschamps.
Away from the action, disgraced Uruguay striker Luis Suarez received a second offer to continue playing football during his four-month ban for biting an Italy defender at the World Cup.
Nart FC, a club in the self-declared Republic of Abkhazia within Georgia, said Suarez could join them and keep match fit because the local federation is not part of FIFA.
Hajvalia from Kosovo have also offered the Liverpool striker - reportedly in talks over a possible transfer to Barcelona - the chance to play for them. The Kosovo Football Federation is also not a member of soccer’s world governing body.
In the remaining two quarter-finals on Saturday, Europe squares off against Latin America.
First, Lionel Messi-led Argentina take on dark horses Belgium in a match that is hard to predict. Both teams have won four games from four, but curiously every win was by a single-goal margin, and neither have yet sparkled as expected.
In Saturday’s second game, the Netherlands are hot favorites to end underdogs Costa Rica’s dream run, but will have to guard against complacency given the Central Americans’ extraordinary campaign, including wins over Italy and Uruguay.
Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum, Mark Gleeson, Elzio Barreto, Andrew Downie, Karolos Grohmann, Caroline Stauffer in Brazil; Dmitriy Rogovitskiy in Moscow; Luis-Jaime Acosta in Bogota