Barred from soccer for the next four months for biting an opponent and obliged to leave his team in the midst of the World Cup, Luis Suarez arrived home in Uruguay before sunrise Friday and was met with cheers and a presidential hug on the tarmac.
Jose Mujica, Uruguay's president, had already made one trip to Montevideo's Carrasco International Airport, along with hundreds of other Uruguayans, with the intent of greeting Suarez and his family. But as the hours passed with no sign of Suarez's charter flight, the 79-year-old Mujica left the premises, only to return when the plane finally did land in the capital about 5:30 a.m.
"We gave him a humble hug on behalf of the Uruguayan people and invited him to continue living, learning and fighting," Mujica said on Uruguayan radio later in the day, speaking of himself in the first person plural. "At 5:30, we were there with his family, greeting him on a cold morning, but all of us with warm hearts, united as a society.
"Actually, more than going for ourselves, it was an attempt to symbolize the affection of the Uruguayan people, who, in these circumstances, do not judge, rather demonstrate affection, because everything else is the equivalent of hitting him while he's down.
The Suarez case is perceived differently in his home country than in much of the world. That alternative view is a reflection of the people's elemental connection with soccer, which has brought the nation two World Cup titles and raised its international profile. It also reflects Uruguayans' deeper understanding of Suarez's life story and rise from modest beginnings.
The domestic circling of wagons also reflects the mentality that comes with being a nation of 3.4 million people bordered by larger and more powerful neighbors.
The prevailing sentiment of Uruguayans as they bonded over the perceived injustice Friday was not that Suarez was innocent but that FIFA, soccer's world governing body, had overreached in punishing him with a nine-game suspension and a four-month ban from soccer-related activities. (Also read: Suarez should seek treatment, says FIFA General Secretary)
Suarez, a star striker who had already been suspended twice in his career for biting opponents, bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the shoulder in the second half of Uruguay's 1-0 victory Tuesday, an act missed by the on-field officials but not by cameras. The victory secured the team's passage to the knockout rounds.
FIFA's ruling, announced by its disciplinary committee Thursday in Brazil, can be appealed, an option Suarez is reportedly considering. But even if there is an appeal, Suarez will not be reinstated for the World Cup, in which Uruguay will face Colombia in the Round of 16 on Saturday.
"I'm not saying that Suarez wasn't at fault, surely he was, but I just think this punishment does not fit the crime," said Jose Luis Estevez Sainz, a 43-year-old from Montevideo who attended the Italy game and was returning home through Porto Alegre on Friday.
Estevez continued: "From my point of view, there clearly have been worse things done on the field that haven't been punished to this degree. But no matter what happened, it takes nothing away for me from what he's done as a soccer player. He's still a phenomenon, one of the best in the world."
In his radio address, Mujica was deeply critical of FIFA's disciplinary approach, calling it "a monstrous aggression not only against a man" but a country. He said Suarez's case would be "an eternal shame on the memory of World Cups."
Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay's coach, was less bombastic but repeatedly called the ban excessive during the team's mandatory pregame news conference Friday in Rio de Janeiro.
Not only Uruguayans used that language. Chiellini, the defender who pulled down his shirt during the game to show the bite marks, also called Suarez's punishment "excessive" in a post on his website Friday.
"At the moment my only thought is for Luis and his family because they will face a very difficult time," Chiellini wrote.
Tabarez took no questions Friday, departing after delivering a 15-minute soliloquy that touched on the fairness of the process and the motivations behind the ban, including the psychology of creating a scapegoat to send a message.
Tabarez announced that he would be resigning his largely ceremonial post on a FIFA committee because he felt he could not work with those who had "values very different from those I believe I have."
But Jerome Valcke, FIFA's secretary general, made it clear in a news conference Friday that he fully supported the ruling and also suggested, when asked if he had advice for Suarez, that the striker seek treatment.
"I don't know if it exists, but he should do something for himself because it's definitely wrong," Valcke said of Suarez's repeated biting during play. "If it's the first time, it's an incident. If it starts to be more than once, it's not an incident anymore."
After Suarez and his family had returned home, a crowd gathered in front of his residence in El Pinar, near Montevideo, and he eventually responded to their cheers by appearing on a balcony with his two young children and waving to the crowd.
"I'm upset with Suarez," said Victoria Vergara, a 30-year-old lawyer. "I can't believe what he did, but I came out to welcome him to show my solidarity. The FIFA sanction has succeeded in converting someone who was a victimizer into a victim and in getting people who aren't even interested in football behind Suarez."
© 2014 New York Times News Service