NATAL, Brazil – The most ruthless soccer players often use their hands or elbows or knees to rough up opposing players. The most reckless — or dirtiest — might even use their cleats.
Then there is Luis Suarez.
Suarez, the Uruguayan striker who has emerged as one of the best players in the world over the past year, is a biter. And, it seems, a serial one.
For the third time in his career, Suarez is facing potential punishment for sinking his teeth into an opponent. This time, it happened on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup, during Uruguay’s 1-0 victory over Italy on Tuesday.
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Late in the second half, Suarez bumped into Giorgio Chiellini, an Italian defender, while jockeying for position in the penalty area and then dropped his head into Chiellini’s shoulder. Chiellini immediately recoiled as both fell to the ground.
The entire scene was surreal: The referee — Marco Rodriguez, whose nickname is Dracula — did not notice and paid no mind to Chiellini’s attempts to pull his collar aside to show what appeared to be bite marks on the back of his left shoulder.
Soon Uruguay scored the only goal of the Group D match. The outcome simultaneously eliminated Italy from the tournament and made certain the Suarez incident would become an unappetizing reference point in the annals of soccer history.
A tournament that produced Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in 1986 and Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 final now has a new infamous body part: Suarez’s incisors.
After the match, questions abounded: What was Suarez thinking? What will happen to him? And, after two previous instances, how in the world could Suarez do it again?
This much is sure: Uruguay will play a knockout-round match Saturday against Colombia, and it is possible Suarez will not be involved.
FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, officially charged Suarez with biting, a process that could lead to a suspension for Uruguay’s best offensive player. If the FIFA disciplinary committee finds Suarez guilty of assaulting an opponent, rules call for a ban of at least two matches up to a maximum of 24 months.
The longest suspension for an on-field action at the World Cup is eight games, to Mauro Tassotti of Italy in 1994 for breaking the nose of a Spanish player with an elbow. Last week, FIFA suspended Cameroon midfielder Alex Song for three games for an elbow that led to his ejection from a loss to Croatia.
Reactions after the match were predictably inflamed.
Italy’s coach, Cesare Prandelli, began his news conference by announcing his resignation after the Azzuri’s early exit. He quickly pivoted to condemning Suarez, saying while he did not see the bite when it took place, he “did see the bite marks on Chiellini’s shoulder.”
“It’s a shame,” Prandelli said. “It’s a real shame.”
Suarez denied biting, despite photographs of Chiellini’s shoulder circulating publicly.
“I had contact with his shoulder, nothing more,” Suarez said.
Chiellini said, “Suarez is a sneak, and he gets away with it because FIFA wants their stars to play in the World Cup.”
Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguayan coach, said he had not seen the incident (nor any video or photographs of it afterward), but he leapt to Suarez’s defense anyway, vehemently attacking journalists for, in his opinion, unfairly targeting Suarez.
Tabarez added, “This is a football World Cup, not about morality, cheap morality.”
Suarez’s first biting incident came in 2010, when he was playing for the Dutch team Ajax. In that instance, he was suspended for seven games for biting an opponent on the neck, prompting a Dutch newspaper to call him the Cannibal of Ajax. He apologized in a video posted online and shortly after the incident was sold to Liverpool, a top team in England, vowing to display better behavior.
But the biting continued. In April 2013, Suarez was caught on video — though not by the referee — biting Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea. This time, Suarez was barred for 10 games, though he argued the customary three-match suspension for violent conduct was sufficient.
When it handed down its sanction, the three-member disciplinary panel made a point to criticize Suarez for not appreciating the “seriousness” of his actions.
In combination with several other controversial incidents, including an earlier suspension for racially abusing a black opponent and a perceived penchant for diving more than the average player, Suarez saw his reputation plummet.
This past year, while having one of his best goal-scoring seasons for Liverpool, Suarez also sought to repair his image. In an interview with The New York Times in May, conducted in part while he rocked his sleeping infant son, he said he wanted to be a better example for his two young children.
He was different these days, he said.
Referring to the previous biting episodes, he said: “Obviously, it’s not the most attractive image that I can have for myself. But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to do things right. I really, really do.”
Instead, it seems he has plunged himself back to a familiar nadir, and it might have ended his World Cup.
If FIFA considers Suarez’s history as a repeat offender, his punishment could be severe. Uruguay, a semifinalist in 2010, has at most four matches left in the World Cup. According to Tabarez, losing Suarez would be difficult because Suarez “is an important person within the group.”
Evander Holyfield, the boxer who infamously had part of his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson, wrote on Twitter, “I guess any part of the body is up for eating.”
Meanwhile, the official Twitter account of McDonald’s Uruguay advised Suarez: “If you feel hungry, come take a bite of a Big Mac.”