Back breaker ... Brazil's forward Neymar reacts on the ground after being injured following a foul by Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga.

Back breaker ... Brazil's forward Neymar reacts on the ground after being injured following a foul by Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga. Photo: AFP

Rio de Janeiro: After an episode in Peru earlier this year in which Peruvian football fans subjected a Brazilian player to racial abuse by imitating the sounds of monkeys, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil swiftly pledged a "World Cup against racism," declaring, "Sports should be no place for prejudice."

Yet when Brazil's top player, Neymar, broke a vertebra when he was kneed in the back during a match on Friday by a Colombian player, the torrent of racist insults against the Colombian, Juan Camilo Ziga, showed how far the host of the World Cup remains from achieving that goal.

Expressing fury over Neymar's injury, which sidelined him for the rest of the tournament, some Brazilians took to social media, including Twitter and Instagram, to express their rage against Ziga with racial slurs.

Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga (red jersey) knees Brazil's forward Neymar in the back. The foul and subsequent injury knocked Neymar out of the semi-final against Germany.

Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga (red jersey) knees Brazil's forward Neymar in the back. The foul and subsequent injury knocked Neymar out of the semi-final against Germany. Photo: Getty Images

"It might be stunning to a lot of outsiders, but the way our Colombian brother has been treated shows yet again that Brazil is one of the world's most racist countries," said David Santos, a Franciscan friar in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who directs Educafro, an organisation preparing black and low-income students for university entrance exams.

The racism expressed by many Brazilians against Ziga points to the tension that persists in a country where prominent writers and scholars long argued that much of the prejudice and discrimination found in the segregation-era United States had been avoided.

In recent decades, discussion over the legacies of slavery, which was abolished in Brazil in 1888, has shifted. While more than half the population of about 200 million define themselves as black or of mixed race, giving Brazil more people of African descent than any country beyond the borders of Africa, the top ranks of government and the private sector remain dominated by whites.

Another angle of the blow ... Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga (red jersey) knees Brazil's forward Neymar in the back.

Another angle of the blow ... Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga (red jersey) knees Brazil's forward Neymar in the back. Photo: AFP

Brazil has recently enacted sweeping affirmative action laws aimed at increasing enrollment of students of African descent in public universities and the hiring of black or mixed-race candidates for coveted public jobs. Brazil also has legislation explicitly prohibiting racial or ethnic discrimination.

Yet as the Ziga episode has shown, football remains an area where racism is still openly tolerated by some.

Just this year, a football tribunal in southern Brazil ordered a club, Esportivo, to pay a small fine and play five matches away from its stadium after its fans told a black referee, Marcio Chagas da Silva, to "return to the jungle" and smeared bananas on his car. In Sao Paulo state this year, fans shouted racist taunts at a Brazilian midfielder, Marcos Arouca da Silva.

Not me sir ... Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga (righ) argues with Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo after committing the foul on Neymar.

Not me sir ... Colombia's defender Juan Camilo Zuniga (righ) argues with Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo after committing the foul on Neymar. Photo: AFP

The situation was supposed to be different during the World Cup.

Brazil's government issued stern warnings against racial insults or other discriminatory behaviour during the tournament. Even before the match between Brazil and Colombia, players from both teams held aloft a banner declaring "Say No to Racism," a slogan promoted by FIFA, the organisation that oversees the World Cup.

Yet Brazil's racial divide has also come into greater focus since the tournament began in June. Reflecting high ticket prices in a country where blacks still generally earn far less than whites, a poll by the Datafolha polling company suggested that fans attending games were overwhelmingly rich and white.

Belgium and Argentine players and referees pose with a "Say No to Racism" banner during a quarter-final football match.

Belgium and Argentine players and referees pose with a "Say No to Racism" banner during a quarter-final football match. Photo: AFP

Ninety per cent of attendees surveyed by Datafolha at a Brazil-Chile match in Belo Horizonte were in the country's top economic tier, and 67 per cent were white, the poll showed. Further pointing to the country's fault lines, supporters of Rousseff, a leftist, attributed jeers against her during the World Cup's opening game to what they described as the anger of the privileged "white elite."

Beyond the racist epithets against Ziga, a candidate for Congress in southern Brazil declared on Twitter that he should be assassinated, before apologising. Others used expletives to insult Ziga's family."War was almost declared on Colombia," said Antero Greco, one of Brazil's top football columnists, in an irony-soaked assessment of the vitriol. Pointing to the intense nature of World Cup matches and his own reading of Neymar's injury, Greco said that while Ziga played aggressively he had not deliberately broken Neymar's back. He also reminded his readers that Neymar will recuperate.

"Let's put the asinine ideas to rest," Greco wrote.