By Malena Castaldi
NATAL Brazil (Reuters) – Luis Suarez’s lawyer flew to Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday to present his defense after the Uruguay striker was accused of biting during his team’s 1-0 win over Italy, leaving him facing a lengthy ban if found guilty by soccer’s governing body.
The incident 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, who has been banned from playing soccer twice previously for biting, has until 5 p.m. local time on Wednesday to present his case to FIFA.
“We’re polishing off a defense argument,” his lawyer Alejandro Balbi told local radio in Uruguay, where many people support the gifted frontman and are angry at what they feel is a “manhunt” being orchestrated by media in Europe.
“We don’t have any doubts that this has happened because it’s Suarez and secondly because Italy was eliminated,” added Balbi, who is also a Uruguay FA board member. “There’s a lot of pressure from England and Italy.”
The incident came 10 minutes from time in Uruguay’s Group D game against Italy, when television footage showed Suarez’s mouth come down on to the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who has publicly 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.
Chiellini pulled down his shirt, and Reuters photographs showed what looked like bite marks on his shoulder.
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.
Uruguay could potentially play four more games in the tournament, and it would be a surprise if Suarez were to be given a ban of a shorter duration if found guilty.
FIFA SEEKING QUICK DECISION
FIFA said it would work quickly to investigate the incident, with Uruguay due to play Colombia on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in the first knockout round.
“The Disciplinary Committee understands the urgency of the matter,” FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer told reporters.
“We will get an update to you later today or tomorrow or whenever they take their decision,” she said.
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.
Suarez has denied biting Chiellini.
“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, traveling to Rio de Janeiro with Uruguay FA boss Wilmar Valdez to face FIFA, echoed those remarks.
“There is a possibility that they ban him, because there are precedents, but we’re convinced that it was an absolutely casual play, because if Chiellini can show a scratch on one shoulder, Suarez can show a bruised and almost shut eye,” Balbi said.
FEARS FOR FUTURE
Whatever the outcome of FIFA’s investigation, the biting scandal could have a major impact on the player’s already chequered career, just as Suarez 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 feared for Suarez’s future after the biting incident.
“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 William Schomberg in Rio de Janeiro, Keith Weir in Curitiba and David Ljunggren in Manaus; Writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Justin Palmer and Ken Ferris)