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Soccer-Cold reality sets in for Brazil without Neymar

Reuters

(Adds letter from president, crowd reaction, Neymar flying home)

By Brian Winter

SAO PAULO, July 5 (Reuters) - At barber shops, bakeries and parks around Brazil on Saturday, it seemed like everyone was shaking their heads and quietly muttering the same name - Neymar.

Any satisfaction about Brazil's 2-1 victory over Colombia in Friday's World Cup quarter-final had long since vanished, replaced by pessimism over whether the team can finally win their first championship on home territory without their star forward.

Neymar, out of the tournament after suffering a fractured vertebra in the dying minutes of the game, was by far the team's most dynamic creative influence - so good, in fact, that some fans accused Brazil's other players of standing around, waiting for him to do something spectacular.

But Neymar meant much more than that.

With his flamboyant quaffed hair and humble roots, Neymar had unparalleled appeal for the rising lower-middle class that has come to dominate Brazil's culture and politics in recent years.

His easy smile, dominant in magazines and billboards, was a tailor-made antidote to the crushing pressure that came with Brazil hosting the Cup for the first time since 1950.

"The Brazilian team lost its soul," lamented Marcelo Rodrigues, shaking his head as he swept the floor at the Light Look barber shop in Sao Paulo on Saturday morning.

"You can't replace a guy like that," chimed in Joao Brandeis Silva, a client. "A shame - we were finally looking good."

Obsession with the injury continued even during Saturday's match between Argentina and Belgium, where many Brazilians in the crowd chanted Neymar's name.

Numerous TV stations broke in live to show him being loaded on to a helicopter, strapped on to a stretcher but smiling, for the journey from the team's training ground to his home on the coast near Sao Paulo.

President Dilma Rousseff sent Neymar a letter on Saturday, wishing him strength and calling him a "warrior who won't be brought down, even when hurt."

Headlines in Saturday's newspapers focused on the injury rather than the victory over Colombia.

"A beating for Brazil," O Globo's sports section said.

"Is it possible without him?" Folha de S.Paulo asked.

To make matters worse, Brazil must also play Germany on Tuesday in the semi-final without captain Thiago Silva, who is suspended after receiving a second yellow card against Colombia.

"The Brazilian team is an underdog now," wrote Juca Kfouri, one of the country's best-known soccer columnists. "Fans who go to (Tuesday's) game will have the spirit of 'I believe,' but they'll really be hoping for a miracle."

Some fans held out hope that other players would step up to fill the void. But most were still focused on mourning.

One video making the rounds on YouTube on Saturday showed a Brazilian toddler in a canary yellow team T-shirt sobbing inconsolably, asking: "Where's Neymar?"

"He's in the hospital, honey," the child's mother replied. "Don't worry, there'll be a World Cup in 2018, too. You'll be big then."

The toddler then cried some more. (Additional reporting by Cesar Bianconi and Paulo Prada in Rio de Janeiro, editing by Ed Osmond)

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