RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - FIFA defended the harsh punishment it handed down to Uruguay striker Luis Suarez for biting an opponent during the World Cup, despite complaints on Friday from his coach, politicians and even the man he bit that the record penalty was excessive.
The 27-year-old striker was expelled from this year’s tournament in Brazil and banned from international soccer for nine competitive games - the longest ever suspension handed out at a World Cup.
Further infuriating those who believe he has been unfairly treated by soccer’s governing body, Suarez cannot do anything connected with soccer for four months, meaning he misses the start of English club Liverpool’s 2014/15 campaign.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke said Suarez’s previous misdemeanors on the pitch had been taken into account. The player was banned twice before for biting during club games.
“If it’s the first time, it’s an incident. More than once, it is not any more an incident,” Valcke told reporters. “That is why also the sanction, it has to be exemplary.
“It was seen by hundreds of millions of people. It is not what you want your kids, what you want the little (ones) who are playing football around the world, to see at a World Cup,” he told journalists at FIFA’s daily tournament media briefing.
He also said Suarez should seek treatment to help him avoid such incidents in the future.
“I don’t know if it exists, but he should do something by himself because it’s definitely wrong.”
FIFA ruled that Suarez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder during Uruguay’s final group match on Tuesday, as his side knocked the Europeans out of the tournament with a 1-0 victory.
The incident overshadowed what has been a scintillating competition so far, with teams playing attacking football and goals flying in at almost three a match.
While many in Europe believe Suarez should be severely punished for his third biting offence, Uruguayans are incensed at what they see as bias against their team within FIFA, and across Latin America the player enjoys widespread sympathy.
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, speaking on the eve of his team’s last 16 game against in-form Colombia, uttered not a word about the match but read a 14-minute statement to a packed press conference during which he railed against FIFA and the media.
“It was a decision much more focused on the opinions of the media who at the conclusion of the match, and at the press conference afterwards, focused on just one topic,” he said.
“I don’t know what their nationality was - but they all spoke English.”
Tabarez added: “I am not justifying anything and saying there should be no punishment. I don’t, though, agree with the theory of having a scapegoat.”
He said he would resign from his posts on FIFA, and left the briefing to loud applause from Uruguayan journalists.
When Suarez flew home on Friday, he was met by outraged President Jose Mujica at a military base next to Uruguay’s main airport. The player, his wife and other family members were then driven to a home he has in the small coastal town of Solymar.
“He is totally distraught. He never thought the punishment would be so severe,” said Alejandro Balbi, a member of the Uruguayan Football Association’s board and Suarez’s lawyer. Former Argentine star Diego Maradona was typically outspoken.
“Who did Suarez kill?” Maradona said during his soccer commentary program broadcast on Venezuela’s Telesur and Argentine public television on Thursday night.
“This is football, this is contact... They may as well handcuff him and bring him to Guantanamo directly.”
Even Chiellini, whose strong protests to the referee after the biting incident were waved away, said the ban was too long.
“Now inside me there’s no feelings of joy, revenge or anger against Suarez for an incident that happened on the pitch and that’s done,” the Juventus center back said in a statement on his website.
“... I believe that the proposed formula is excessive,” Chiellini added.
Fifer, the international soccer players’ union, also questioned the ruling, which will mean Suarez is unlikely to appear in competitive matches for his country until 2016. “Fifer believes all affected parties may benefit (from) more time to remove the emotion, reflect and re-establish the facts in a calm and considered setting,” it said.
As well as affecting international appearances, FIFA’s ruling will have a major impact on Suarez’s club career.
After a brilliant season for Premier League runners-up Liverpool, the prolific striker will miss his club’s opening domestic and European Champions League matches.
Suarez’s value in the transfer market, estimated to be at least 50 million pounds ($85 million), could be affected should Liverpool decide to sell him, and his endorsement deals have begun to unravel.
On Friday, poker brand 888 canceled its sponsorship deal with Suarez just weeks after he became one of the company’s brand ambassadors.
“Regrettably, following his actions during Uruguay’s World Cup match against Italy on Tuesday, 888poker has decided to terminate its relationship with Luis Suarez with immediate effect,” it said in a statement.
German sportswear firm Adidas stopped short of axing Suarez, but will not use him in any further World Cup marketing.
Additional reporting by Malena Castaldi in Montevideo, Josh Reich, Kate Holton in London and Alexandra Ulmer in Buenos Aires; Writing by Mike Collett-White