Uruguay's national soccer team player Luis Suarez attends a news conference prior a training session at the Dunas Arena soccer stadium in Natal, June 23, 2014. Photo by Carlos Barria, Reuters.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Luis Suarez and his Uruguay team mates faced an anxious wait on Wednesday as soccer's governing body FIFA decided whether to expel him from the World Cup for biting an opponent in a match against Italy.
The incident in Uruguay's 1-0 victory over the Europeans in Natal on Tuesday has brought the ugly side of the game to the fore, marring a tournament that has been widely praised for its attacking football and major upsets.
Suarez's lawyer, Alejandro Balbi, flew to Rio de Janeiro with Uruguay FA chief Wilmar Valdez to lay out the player's defence, although the consensus among those who have seen replays of the incident is that the forward's future at the tournament is in serious jeopardy.
Now that Balbi has spoken to FIFA, it is up to its disciplinary committee to rule on whether or not Suarez is guilty. Uruguay has up to four more games to play in Brazil, and any ban would probably rule the player out of the finals.
Balbi, Suarez's team and the Uruguayan public generally believe that the forward has been unfairly singled out in what they call a "manhunt" against a player whose chequered career has seen him banned twice before for biting.
"We don't have any doubts that this has happened because it's Suarez and secondly because Italy was eliminated," said Balbi, who is also a Uruguay FA board member, before he left for Brazil. "There's a lot of pressure from England and Italy."
Uruguay defender Diego Lugano said the incident had been blown out of proportion, and that other potentially more dangerous fouls had been committed in other games.
"Football's like that," he told reporters.
"It's passion, it's contact, and you should have a bit more balance and justice when talking about different incidents, because if not it looks like you only want to take aim at one player or team and it seems on purpose."
The incident in question came 10 minutes from time in Uruguay's Group D game against Italy, when television footage showed Suarez's mouth come down on the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who has accused him of biting.
The Italians were still complaining when Uruguay's Diego Godin scored with an 81st-minute header to secure a win that sent the South Americans through to the last 16 and eliminated four-times champions Italy from the tournament.
MAXIMUM BAN TWO YEARS
Chiellini pulled down his shirt, and Reuters photographs showed what looked like bite marks on his shoulder.
Suarez has denied biting.
"Those are situations that happen on the pitch. We were both just there inside the area. He shoved me with his shoulder, and my eye got left like that also," he said on Tuesday, in reference to Chiellini's marks.
Balbi was asked by Reuters in Rio whether the contact was intentional.
"No," he replied. "Suarez's mouth hit against the Italian player's shoulder."
Valdez added: "If FIFA acts the way that it should, being objective, according to the proof that there is, he really should not be sanctioned ... Luis is a football player that is important to the whole world, not just Uruguay."
The referee did not spot the incident during the match, but FIFA's rules allow the use of video or "any other evidence" to punish players retrospectively.
FIFA's disciplinary code sets a maximum ban of 24 matches or two years, but the longest suspension FIFA has imposed for an offence at a World Cup was eight games on Italy's Mauro Tassotti for breaking the nose of Spain's Luis Enrique in 1994.
FIFA said it would work quickly to investigate the incident, with Uruguay due to play Colombia on Saturday in Rio in the first knockout round.
"The Disciplinary Committee understands the urgency of the matter," FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer told reporters.
Brazil's sports minister Aldo Rebelo said the incident was "regrettable" for its potential impact on the World Cup.
"I think it's very bad that it happened," he told reporters. "He (Suarez) is an exceptional player, helps to give the World Cup more attention ... That was not the first bite. Other ones have happened."
Losing Suarez would be a huge blow to Uruguay, who rely heavily on the prolific Liverpool forward's attacking talent. He scored both goals in the side's 2-1 win over England earlier in the tournament, and is widely considered the team's best player.
Whatever the outcome of FIFA's investigation, the biting scandal could have a major impact on the player's career, just as he appeared to have put past misdemeanours behind him and focused on the football.
His Liverpool side finished second in the English Premier League last season, thanks in no small part to Suarez's brilliance in front of goal that earned him the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Player of the Year award.
But PFA chief Gordon Taylor said he now feared for Suarez's future.
"He seemed to get back on track," Taylor told the BBC. "He had a great season... It is a big problem for Liverpool," he added. "I fear for his career."
Suarez was banned for 10 games last year after biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic in a Premier League game and in 2010 was suspended for seven games for a similar offence against PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal while playing for Ajax Amsterdam.
He also missed Uruguay's World Cup semi-final against the Netherlands four years ago after being sent off for a handball on the line that denied Ghana what would have been a match-winning goal in the final minute of extra time.
Suarez risks losing lucrative commercial deals.
Poker brand 888 said it was "seriously reviewing" its sponsorship agreement with him after Suarez became one of the online gambling company's brand ambassadors last month.
Suarez has an endorsement deal with German sportswear company Adidas, which said it was awaiting FIFA'S decision before taking any action, and he has also been advertising the Beats headphones worn by many top players.
(Additional reporting by Malena Castaldi in Montevideo, Alexandra Ulmer in Buenos Aires, Keith Weir in Curitiba and David Ljunggren in Manaus; Writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Justin Palmer and Ken Ferris)