KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Yet another biting storm swirled around Luis Suarez after Uruguay outmuscled Italy to snatch away ‘their’ place in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
Italy had entered the concluding group matchday confident that their defensive knowhow would secure the minimum draw necessary to ease through behind Costa Rica from Group D. But everything exploded beyond their control in the closing stages of an increasingly rugged second half.
First Claudio Marchisio was sent off for an undisciplined stamp on the calf of Egidio Arevalo; that offered Uruguay the chink of hope they were pursuing when Suarez clashed with Giorgio Chiellini deep in Italian territory.
Then Suarez appeared to bite the defender’s shoulder and headbutt him for added impetus as the ball ricocheted away for a corner. Chiellini, in fury, protested to referee Marco Rodriguez but the Mexican official had been unsighted. Chiellini said later: “It was perfectly clear. It was ridiculous that he was not sent off.”
Italian discipline went missing in the heat of the moment. When Gaston Ramirez flighted over the corner captain Diego Godin rose magnificently to head the ball back down past keeper Gigi Buffon’s flailing left hand. It was the Atletico Madrid defender’s ninth goal of the season, and all of them headers.
That proved the only and decisive goal before the final whistle signalled the opening of a World Cup disciplinary nightmare.
The consequences of the latest Suarez incident, in front of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, could be immense.
This has placed the world federation in the eye of a similar worldwide storm to four years ago after Frank Lampard’s ‘phantom goal’ for England against Germany.
Blatter and FIFA have turned ‘fair play’ into a mantra trotted out at virtually every press conference and public statement.
Should the video evidence prove conclusive, any failure to deal with Suarez in less than a seismic way will undermine the credibility of world football’s disciplinary system.
On the other hand, FIFA will be all too aware that to impose a lengthy suspension on Suarez risks’ provoking widespread anger across South America where miscreants such as, in the past, Diego ‘Hand of God’ Maradona assume the status of martyred heroes rather than sporting villains.
Suarez has form. He was serving a seven-game ban for biting PSV’s Otman Bakkal when Liverpool bought him from Ajax for £23m in January 2011. That offence earned him the label of the ‘Canibal of Ajax’ from one Dutch newspaper.
The lesson was not heeded. Suarez was suspended for 10 games in England last year after biting Chelsea’s Brane Ivanovic in a Premier League game.
This without counting his earlier eight-game ban for racist comments to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in October 2011.
This past season, however, he appeared to try to turn a character corner. Liverpool’s Premier upsurge was founded on the 31 goals which established Suarez as leading league marksman as well as joint winner, with Cristiano Ronaldo, of the European Golden Boot.
His efforts to clean up his act also brought him an awards double as Footballer of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year. However, Suarez’s approach to the World Cup was threatened by a knee injury which needed surgery before the finals.
Remarkably he recovered in time to score the two goals which shot down England and set up the do-or-die showdown between the two former World Cup-winners in Natal.
Italy had held steady throughout the first half in the face of increasing Uruguayan pressure and Oscar Washington Tabarez, the Celeste’s veteran coach, grew increasingly animated as he prowled and scowled around his technical area.
Mario Balotelli, inevitably, was at the centre of the first-half angst. First he was booked for jumping all over Alvaro Pereira then he was left in a heap himself by similar treatment from Godin.
Balotelli’s booking was his second of the finals so he would have missed Italy’s second round game: not that this matters any more.
Uruguay pressed forward urgently but found Italy compact at the back and Buffon secure in goal. On the one occasion when Suarez did break through on the left the veteran Italian captain was quickly across to smother the attempted cross.
The temperature rose further in the second hald when Marchisio was sent off just after the hour.
Uruguay forged forward to capitalise on their numerical superiority and very nearly did so when Suarez wriggled free through the centre of attack for the first time. Buffon, diving to his right, deflected the ball wide off his wrist on his way to earning the man of the match award.
Minutes later the match exploded into Italian weeping and wailing . . . and happy Uruguayan gnashing of teeth.