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NATAL, Brazil – A soccer player, one of the best in the world, jockeys for position in a World Cup game and, at just the right moment as to be out of view of the referee, leans in to take a bite out of his opponent’s shoulder as if it were a piece of beef jerky.

Pure madness, to be sure, but wait for the unbelievable part: This was not his first in-game snack. And not his second, either.

For the third time in the past four years, Uruguay’s star striker, Luis Suárez, appeared to bite a player on the other team when he clashed with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini late in the second half of Uruguay’s 1-0 victory here Tuesday. As in the previous two incidents, Suárez’s apparent chomp went unnoticed by the game officials. Chiellini raced toward the Mexican referee, Marco Rodriguez, immediately afterward, pulling his jersey to the side in an effort, it seemed, to show Rodriguez the bite marks. Other Italian players also yelled at the official, who did not respond. After the match, questions abounded: What was Suárez thinking? What will happen to him now? And, perhaps most pointedly, after two previous instances like this, how in the world could Suárez do it again?

This much is sure: Uruguay will play a knockout round match on Saturday, and it is very possible that Suárez will not be involved. FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, has a disciplinary panel which can issue suspensions for on-field actions that are not seen by the referee. A spokesman for FIFA said the organization would “evaluate the matter” in due course, but the panel is almost certain to rule before Uruguay’s next game. More immediately, the postgame reactions were predictably inflamed. The Italian coach, Cesare Prandelli, began his news conference by announcing his resignation after the Azzuri’s early exit but quickly pivoted to condemning Suárez, saying that while he did not see the bite when it took place, he “did see the bite marks on Chiellini’s shoulder.”

“It’s a shame,” Prandelli said. “It’s a real shame.”

Suárez denied biting him, despite photographs of Chiellini’s shoulder circulating publicly and seeming to indicate otherwise. “I had contact with his shoulder, nothing more,” he said. Chiellini said, “Suárez is a sneak, and he gets away with it because FIFA wants their stars to play in the World Cup.”

Óscar Tabárez, the Uruguayan coach, also said he had not seen the incident (nor any video or photographs of it afterward), but he leapt to Suárez’s defense anyway, vehemently attacking journalists for, in his opinion, unfairly targeting Suárez.

Tabárez added: “This is a football World Cup, not about morality, cheap morality.”

Suárez’s first biting incident came in 2010, when he was playing for the Dutch club Ajax. In that instance, he was suspended for seven games for biting an opponent on the neck, prompting a Dutch newspaper to call him the Cannibal of Ajax. He apologized in a video posted online and shortly after the incident was sold to Liverpool, a top club in England, vowing to display better behavior.

But the biting continued. In April 2013, Suárez was caught on video but, again, not by the referee biting Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea. This time, Suárez was barred for 10 games, though he argued the customary three-match suspension for violent conduct was sufficient.

When it handed down its sanction, the three-member disciplinary panel made a point to criticize Suárez for not appreciating the “seriousness” of his actions. In combination with several other controversial incidents, including an earlier suspension for racially abusing a black opponent and a perceived penchant for diving more than the average player, Suárez saw his reputation plummet.

This past year, while having one of his best goal-scoring seasons for Liverpool, Suárez also sought to repair his image. In an interview with the New York Times in May, conducted in part while he rocked his sleeping infant son, he said he wanted to be a better example for his two young children. He was different now, he said. The petulance was in the past. Referring to the previous biting episodes, he said: “Obviously, it’s not the most attractive image that I can have for myself. But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to do things right. I really, really do.”

If FIFA considers Suárez’s history as a repeat offender, his punishment could be severe.For the moment, however, Suárez only has to deal with the snarky justice dispensed on social media. Evander Holyfield, the former boxer who infamously had part of his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson, wrote on Twitter, “I guess any part of the body is up for eating.” That was only topped, perhaps, by the official Twitter account of McDonald’s Uruguay, which wrote to Suárez: “If you feel hungry, come take a bite of a Big Mac.”