FORTALEZA, Brazil (AP) – With tears streaming down his face after being kneed in the back, Neymar was carried off the field on a stretcher.
He won't be coming back. Not to this World Cup, anyway.
The 22-year-old Brazil striker, the one with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, was ruled out of the rest of the tournament after fracturing his third vertebra during Friday's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Colombia.
"It's a big loss for us," Brazil midfielder Fernandinho said. "We need to find a way to stay together and become stronger after losing our greatest player. We will try to win this World Cup and for sure we will dedicate it to Neymar."
Neymar is the biggest football star in Brazil, and one of the biggest at the tournament along with Argentina forward Lionel Messi. His face has been plastered on billboards and shown on television continuously, leading many of his staunchest supporters to copy his dyed-blonde fauxhawk.
His millions of fans had expected Neymar's World Cup to end with him holding the trophy, not being carried off the field in tears.
Neymar was kneed by Colombia defender Juan Camilo Zuniga late in the second half at the Arena Castelao. He was taken to a private clinic and was released a short time later.
He was not expected to need surgery, Brazil team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar said, but he will also not be able to face Germany on Tuesday in the World Cup semifinals.
"He will not be in condition to play, he will need a few weeks to be fit again," Lasmar said. "He is very, very sad."
About 50 Brazil fans, many still wearing the team's jerseys, crowded outside the clinic where Neymar was taken, while the ambulance that carried him remained parked in front, lights blazing.
Neymar was hurt in the 86th minute, falling to the ground in pain after Zuniga jumped into him from behind.
Brazil teammate Marcelo quickly called for medical assistance when he saw Neymar writhing in pain. Neymar stayed face down until team doctors arrived and put him on a stretcher.
"Everybody knew that Neymar would be hunted," Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. "It's been happening in the last three matches and we had been talking about it. But nobody listens to us."
Friday's match ended with 54 fouls in total — 31 by Brazil and 23 by Colombia. Scolari said Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo should have done more to take control of the match.
According to Hulk, another of Brazil's striker, Neymar needs more protection from the officials.
"Every time is like this. Players always come after Neymar," Hulk said. "The referees need to do more to keep this from happening."