By Ben Smith BBC Sport
There were three moments that stuck in the mind as the dust settled in Natal, moments that perhaps told the story of a man who knew what he had done.
The first was of Luis Suarez throwing himself to the ground clutching his mouth and feeling his teeth moments after he appeared to bite Italy’s Georgio Chiellini.
The second was of the striker standing momentarily alone on the touchline in the seconds after the final whistle while his Uruguay team-mates danced in a circle to celebrate a famous victory.
The third came an hour or so later as Suarez made his way out of the Estadio das Dunas, having written his name into World Cup infamy, his expression thoughtful. Hardly what you would expect from a man celebrating his team’s dramatic last-ditch passage out of Group D and into the knockout stages.
This was all played out amid an air of total disbelief. Had Suarez really bitten another player for the third time in his remarkable and controversial career, this time with the eyes of the world on him?
You would have been forgiven for asking that question of yourself again and again having listened to Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez and his players as they left the stadium.
A heated exchange with Tabarez in his news conference ended with him claiming this was nothing more than a conspiracy against Suarez led by the British media. One Uruguayan journalist actually stood up and applauded Tabarez’s answer.
The message from the players was no different. Uruguay captain Diego Lugano said: “You couldn’t have seen it because nothing happened. The worst of everything is the attitude of Chiellini. As a man, he disappointed me totally.”
“I didn’t see anything my friend, I didn’t see anything,” said Diego Forlan.
The veteran forward was not alone. Tens of thousands of fans left Estadio das Dunas completely unaware of the media maelstrom that had overshadowed the match.
One British couple who had been in the ground said they had no idea what had unfolded until they got home and checked the match report on the internet. It was a story told again and again in Natal on Tuesday night.
In fact, very few of those inside the stadium had seen the incident in real time. It happened so quickly, and at first glance it was the sort of thing that might take place 10 times in a match. Suarez tussled with Chiellini as they chased a ball inside the Italy penalty area, and both men fell to the floor.
|Luis Suarez’s previous controversies|
|July 2010: Handles on the line to deny Ghana a winner in the last minute of extra time in the World Cup quarter-finals. Asamoah Gyan misses the resulting penalty and Uruguay win the shoot-out to reach the semi-finals|
|November 2010: Given seven-match ban for biting PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder while playing for Ajax|
|December 2011: Given eight-match suspension and fined £40,000 for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra|
|February 2012: Refuses to shake hands with Evra at Old Trafford and is described as a “disgrace” by Sir Alex Ferguson|
|April 2013: Apologises for his “inexcusable behaviour” after biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic and receives a 10-game ban|
The first sign something untoward had happened was the sight of Suarez holding his mouth. Chiellini was also on the floor holding his shoulder. Had Suarez been elbowed in the mouth?
The 400 journalists in the stadium then turned to watch a replay on the TVs that are placed on the desks in the press box. There was a collective turning of heads when the images were slowed down. Then a collective look of disbelief as a second replay appeared on the screen. “Did Luis Suarez just do what I think he did?”
Chiellini pulled himself up from the ground and went straight to the Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez – whose nickname happens to be Dracula – to protest. The Juventus defender pulled down the neck of his shirt to expose what, viewed later on photographs, appeared to be a bite mark.
The referee had not seen the incident. Nor had the crowd any inkling of what had gone on – but the images were already being discussed around the world.
Moments later Uruguay scored, knocking Italy out of the World Cup and almost certainly bringing the curtain down on the international careers of some of the great Italian players of their era – Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi. The focus was, however, elsewhere.
The Uruguay players ran across to their fans, they danced arm in arm on the pitch. Suarez stepped away from his team-mates and let his eyes roam the crowd on the far side of the stadium, perhaps looking for friends or his family. He shook his head twice and put his hands on his hips.
“The British media is very bad to Luis Suarez. Bad. Bad. Bad. You attack, attack, attack. You don’t see the goals, only bad things ”
Leonardo Goyen Sena La Tribune newspaper
Perhaps he was just taking in the significance of the result. Perhaps he was contemplating the likely consequences of his actions. If the sun shone on Uruguay, Suarez had cast a shadow.
Down in the bowels of the stadium, Italy keeper Buffon accepted his man of the match award and spoke of “a day of failure”. Tabarez then appeared and said he would defend his player because “this is a football World Cup – it’s not about morality, cheap morality”.
“As we say in Uruguay, there are people who are hiding behind a tree waiting for someone to make a mistake. Suarez, despite mistakes he might have made, is a target of certain media, of press.”
Next came Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who promptly announced he was resigning. “I did not see the incident,” Prandelli said. “But I did see the bite marks.” Reasonably enough, his mind was on other issues.
Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates was first through the maze of barriers in the area where journalists and footballers mix – a rat-run from dressing room to team coach. Suarez followed soon after, clutching a wash bag under his arm.
He winked and pointed at one or two journalists, smiling briefly, as he always does. But for once he did not stop. Shouts of “did you bite him Luis?” filled the air. He had nothing to say. There was, however, that look on his face that suggested he was beginning to grasp that this was not going to go away.
The Italians had waited to allow their opponents to leave the stadium in order to avoid any awkward confrontations in front of the press. Now they made their exit. Chiellini, the marked man, appeared just behind De Rossi.
What happened? “I have said what I want to say.”
So he had. Half an hour earlier he had told an Italian TV station: “Suarez is a sneak and he gets away with it because Fifa want their stars to play in the World Cup. I’d love to see if they have the courage to use video evidence against him. The referee saw the bite mark.”
If Chiellini thought he was the wronged man, the Uruguayan press had other ideas about who the day’s victim was.
“The British media is very bad to Luis Suarez. Bad. Bad. Bad,” said Leonardo Goyen Sena, from La Tribune newspaper. “You attack, attack, attack. You don’t see the goals, only bad things.”
Didier Bernardoni Muller, from El Guichonese, added: “You don’t walk to talk about the game, an important win for Uruguay.”
It will be for Fifa to identify the villain and determine what, if any, punishment they will hand down.
The world governing body’s disciplinary code has scope to suspend a player for a maximum of two years or 24 matches – which, by the letter of the law, can include club games but is normally limited to internationals. Liverpool, Suarez’s club, had no comment to make on Tuesday. They have been here before, of course, and dealt with the fallout.
But the incident could yet have an impact on the player’s future at domestic level. The Uruguayan may just have gone from being one of the world’s most prized footballers to a player some clubs could decide has had one chance too many.