RIO DE JANEIRO

Brazil striker Neymar was ruled out of the remainder of the World Cup Friday, dealing the hosts a crushing blow just hours after they battled through to a semi-final showdown with Germany.

Brazil's bruising win over Colombia was immediately overshadowed by news that Neymar would miss the rest of the tournament after suffering a fractured vertebra. The 22-year-old was carried off grimacing in agony after an aerial collision with Colombia defender Juan Camilo Zuniga towards the end of the contest. Neymar got a knee in the back.

"The exam showed he suffered a fracture of the third vertebra" in his back, Brazil team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar said. Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari fumed that Neymar had been targeted by opponents during the tournament. "I have been saying for three matches that Neymar has been hunted, but all the other countries say it is not true and it is only their players that are hunted," Scolari said.

FIFA opens probe as anger grows

FIFA said it was investigating the tackle which saw the star striker stretchered out of the tournament. FIFA said it is studying footage of the aerial challenge from Zuniga which left Neymar with a fractured vertebrae. "The FIFA Disciplinary Committee is analysing all the elements provided, the videos and the match reports, and will decide whether or not to take action," FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer said.

Zuniga was rapidly being cast as Brazil's public enemy number one but insists he had not sought to hurt Neymar in the tackle. "When I'm on the field I always do what I have to, to defend my country and the shirt I wear, but always without intent to injure anybody," Zuniga said. But Zuniga's protests failed to impress Brazilian legend Ronaldo, who accused the Colombian of a "violent attack." "I believe there was an intention to hurt by the player. I believe it was very aggressive and very violent," he said.

Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro agreed, saying Zuniga had intentionally struck Neymar with his knee. "I didn't like that very high knee. That leads me to believe it was a foul with a prior intention to cause harm," he said.

Wishes for a speedy recovery poured in from all over, including Argentine playmaker Lionel Messi, Neymar's team mate at Barcelona. "Neymar, I hope that you recover very quickly," wrote the Argentinian on his Facebook page alongside a photograph of the two stars in their Barcelona shirts. Even Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff used her Twitter account to call on Brazilians to unite around Neymar and the national team. "Your painful expression yesterday on the pitch ... wounded my heart, along with that of all Brazilians," Rousseff wrote. Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona also lamented Neymar's injury, telling Venezuela-based Telesur TV network: "It concerns not only the Brazilian people but all of us who love football. It was his World Cup, in his country. He had great hopes."

Pele said his heart ached for Neymar after Brazil's star player was ruled out of the rest of the World Cup but noted that the team lifted the 1962 trophy despite his own injury. The football legend, recalling that Neymar had played at Santos like him, wrote on Twitter that "it hurts our hearts to know that he can no longer defend Brazil in the World Cup."

"I was also injured during the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and I was out for the rest of the tournament," he wrote in English and Portuguese. But God helped Brazil continue on to win the Championship. I hope the same will happen with our Selecao in this World Cup."

Brazil’s opponent in semi-final Germany also felt sorry for Neymar loss. The loss of Brazil forward Neymar to injury is a setback for the entire World Cup tournament, Germany assistant coach Hansi Flick said. "It's always regrettable when a world-class player like that gets knocked out of the tournament," Flick said on the fringes of Germany's training session in Santo Andre. "He was a great enrichment," said Flick when asked by a small group of reporters about Neymar.