Neymar's exit leaves hole in Brazil's hopes
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Over the past two decades, tens of millions of Brazilian children have grown up with the same dream, of being the striker who won the World Cup for their country.
Neymar came into this tournament on home soil as the chosen one, the player most likely to live that dream at Rio's iconic Maracana Stadium on July 13.
The fractured vertebra that ruled him out of the rest of the tournament in Friday's victory over Colombia was a devastating setback on a personal level. But it was also a hammer blow to Brazil's chances of even reaching that final at the Maracana.
The problem is that Neymar isn't just a hugely talented striker -- he's the only Brazil striker to deliver so far at this tournament.
Defenders have scored Brazil's three goals in the knockout stages, with David Luiz finding the net twice and captain Thiago Silva once. Only one of Brazil's 10 goals at the World Cup has been scored by a striker other than Neymar -- the somewhat luckless Fred, who managed the feat in a 4-1 win over Cameroon.
Otherwise, the likes of Fred, Jo and Hulk have contributed little to Brazil's journey to the semifinals. They will now be expected to start delivering on the high public expectations.
What's more, Neymar's importance to his team goes beyond scoring goals.
Tactically, his ability to escape defenders in the final third of the pitch provides a real cutting edge to Brazil's attack -- and there is no obvious replacement as a playmaker around the penalty area who also carries a goal scoring threat.
The fact that he is also a magnet for defenders gives Brazil a further advantage, drawing opponents away from his teammates and either creating space or leaving them unmarked.
However, the damage inflicted on Brazil's World Cup hopes by Neymar's injury is not just limited to the technical and tactical.
Losing their chosen one will have a psychological impact on the team, let alone the despair into which it has plunged a country of around 200 million people.
Given the stakes and expectations on their young shoulders, Brazil's team has already shown moments of stage fright, weakness and tears during this tournament. Now, without Neymar, the safety net has been taken away.
To compound the team's problems, Silva's yellow card against Colombia means that he too will miss the semifinal match against Germany on Tuesday in Belo Horizonte.
Without their best player or their captain, Brazil's players will clearly have to dig deep within if they are to beat arguably the most convincing team at this World Cup. A desire to `win it for Neymar' could be invaluable.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
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