BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Neymar will leave with his image untarnished by Brazil's disastrous World Cup loss to Germany, widely seen as the player in charge of helping the national team recover from the historic home defeat.
Neymar's first World Cup ended in disappointment when he was carried off the field on a stretcher with a fractured vertebra.
He was recovering at home when Brazil self-destructed in the 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals, helping shield him from attacks by critics ready to question his potential for greatness.
While Brazil's national team will remain discredited for some time, Neymar's World Cup will be remembered mostly for his good performances until the back injury prematurely ended his tournament.
Fans loudly booed Brazil's entire team after the final whistle in the match against Germany last Tuesday. The criticism of players continued unabated and was likely to continue on Saturday when the hosts play the Netherlands for third place in Brasilia.
Neymar seems to be the only one being spared.
"Neymar is our only hero," said Lucas Oliveira, a 15-year-old Brazilian fan in Brasilia. "The only reason Brazil lost the way it did was because Neymar wasn't playing."
The 22-year-old Neymar was carrying the nation's hopes for a title at home until he took a knee in the back during the quarterfinal win over Colombia.
Neymar is expected to remain sidelined for another few weeks to fully heal from the lower back injury that resulted from a collision with Juan Camilo Zuniga.
Images of Neymar crying in pain were broadcast around the world, but from the beginning doctors said the injury was not serious enough to jeopardize his career.
He returned to Brazil's training camp outside Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, when practice was stopped briefly so he could greet his teammates. Neymar is expected to be in Brasilia to support the team in the third-place match on Saturday.
His club, Barcelona, expects Neymar back in early August to continue a recovery process that it said is progressing "very well." He should be fit for the team's first friendly after the World Cup, likely against Colombia on Sept. 5.
Brazilian fans can't wait to see him back on the field, knowing that playing well and winning again may be the easiest way to try to forget the 7-1 loss on Friday. Neymar will be 26 when the 2018 World Cup is staged in Russia.
"He can still give us a lot of happiness until then," Brazilian fan Lavinia Silva said.
Neymar scored four goals in his five games in the World Cup and was considered one of the stand-out players. Half of Brazil's goals until then were scored by him.
Neymar has missed only seven of Brazil's 61 matches played after he made his international debut following the 2010 World Cup. In the 54 matches he played, Brazil won 36, drew 12 and lost six. He had been in every match under Luiz Felipe Scolari since the coach took over in late 2012.
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