He was a big part of the team's spine, the backbone of a high-energy attack that had Brazil poised to win a record sixth World Cup in next weekend's final.
But now that Neymar's own backbone has been fractured, Brazil's title chances may be broken as well.
There is reason for hope. Other teams with far less talent and far less depth did remarkably well in this World Cup without their stars.
Colombia, which lost star striker Radamel Falcao to knee surgery last winter, made it to the quarterfinals unbeaten behind James Rodriguez before being eliminated by Brazil on Friday.
Surprising Costa Rica lost Alvaro Saborio, the national team's active leader in goals and appearances, to a broken bone in his foot two weeks before the World Cup began. Yet Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals unbeaten before losing to the Netherlands in penalty kicks Saturday.
Then there's France, which lost Franck Ribery just days before the tournament began. It too reached the quarterfinals unbeaten before losing to Germany.
Can you spot the trend?
That, of course, is the bad news for Brazil. Every team just mentioned eventually lost, all of them falling short of the only accomplishment — a World Cup title — that will appease a Brazilian public that spent $11.5 billion to put this party on.
Yet the case of Neymar might be different. Brazil — which is also unbeaten — has played five games here with its 22-year-old talisman leading the offense virtually alone. Traditionally Brazil has featured a diverse attack with a number of options up front. Current Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari won a World Cup in 2002 with three strikers — Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho — who combined for 15 goals.
However, this team has developed a different rhythm and found a different style, both of which revolve around Neymar. He not only leads the team with four goals, but, of more importance, he has also created 13 chances for his teammates. And according to the London Guardian, he has had 241 touches in the opposition half.
That's production that can't be ignored. Nor can it be replaced, which is the real challenge Scolari faces in Neymar's absence.
He can't just put a new player in Neymar's spot and hope for the same results. So with two training days left before Tuesday's semifinal against Germany, Brazil must develop and implement an entirely new strategy — a task further complicated by the loss of captain Thiago Silva, who will also miss Tuesday's game after picking up his second yellow card in Saturday's foul-filled street fight with Colombia.
Working in Brazil's favor is the fact that though Neymar has been the team's most important and most irreplaceable player he hasn't necessarily been its best player. According to a complicated formula that tracks and measures every move each player makes on the field, Brazil defender David Luiz has been the best of the 732 players in this World Cup. Neymar didn't crack the top five.
All that aside, though, Neymar's injury has robbed this World Cup of a marquee player — and one from the host country at that. And it could have been avoided if Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo had decided to do his job Friday — or if Scolari's team hadn't chosen to take advantage of the official's meekness.
There were 54 fouls whistled in the match — 31 against Brazil. Much of the pushing and shoving was directed at Colombia's Rodriguez, the tournament's leading scorer — physical play that Velasco Carballo proved incapable of reigning in.
Not surprisingly, Colombia responded the only way it knew how: by targeting Neymar, who has suffered 18 World Cup fouls, second-most of any player in the tournament.
"Everyone knows he's going to be hunted," Scolari said of his star player, who was also injured in Brazil's previous match with Chile. "For three matches that has been happening."
The play that broke both Neymar's back and Brazilian hearts took place in the 88th minute. With Neymar going for a loose ball, Colombia defender Juan Zuniga leapt into him from behind, hitting the Brazilian in the small of his back with his knee. As Neymar writhed and cried out in obvious pain, Velasco Carballo didn't even stop play, waving for the Brazilian counterattack to continue.
When play was halted, Neymar was carted off on a stretcher and taken directly to the hospital. Bare-chested, he was wheeled in on a gurney holding a small white towel over his face.
A short while later Rodrigo Lasmar, Brazil's team doctor, emerged to say that Neymar probably won't need surgery. But he can't play either.
"He'll need to immobilize [the fracture] to recover," Lasmar told Brazilian TV.
Now the question becomes, can Brazil recover without him?
Twitter: @kbaxter11Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun