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Suarez bite and ban steals the first round spotlight

By Peter Rutherford

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - For 13 glorious days in Brazil the feel-good factor flourished at the World Cup as the football flowed, the goals gushed and fans reveled in the tournament's return to its spiritual home.

Then along came Luis Suarez.

From the moment the troubled Uruguay striker sunk his teeth into Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder all the great goals and colorful celebrations of the group stage became a sideshow to the bite and subsequent nine-match ban.

Suarez was also hit with a four-month suspension from all football activities and fined 100,000 Swiss francs ($112,000) as FIFA came down hard on a player who has served two lengthy bans for previous biting incidents.

"Such behavior cannot be tolerated on any football pitch, and in particular not at a FIFA World Cup when the eyes of millions of people are on the stars on the field," world soccer's governing body said.

The suspension, a record handed out at a World Cup, has robbed the tournament of one of its brightest stars and left Uruguay without their lethal weapon ahead of a second-round encounter with high-flying Colombia.

And how they will miss him.

Suarez sat out Uruguay's opening defeat by Costa Rica but returned to score twice and effectively knock England out of the tournament before playing his part in a win over Italy that eliminated the Azzurri and sealed a spot in the last 16.

The World Cup is undoubtedly a duller place without him but there is no shortage of illustrious names vying to grab the Uruguayan's share of the spotlight.

Neymar was the word on every Brazilian's lips ahead of the World Cup and he has lived up to the hype, finishing the first round as joint leading scorer and spearheading the hosts' charge into the second round.

The 22-year-old brought the Corinthians arena to life in the World Cup opener, calming the frayed nerves of home fans by scoring twice in a 3-1 come-from-behind win over Croatia.

MESSI MAGIC

Joining Neymar at the top of the scoring charts on four goals is Lionel Messi, who scored in all of Argentina's group games, while Thomas Mueller also netted four as Germany won their group comfortably.

For some, Messi can only earn his place among the all-time greats of football by shining at the World Cup and his dazzling performances in Brazil suggest he is on the right track.

The livewire forward danced through the Bosnia defense to score the winner in their opener, curled home a magnificent shot on the run to deny plucky Iran a point in stoppage time, then topped the lot with a stunning 20-yard free kick against Nigeria in a barnstorming Group F finale.

While Messi was scoring late, Clint Dempsey could barely have found the net any earlier. The U.S. forward put his side ahead after just 30 seconds against Ghana, scoring the fifth fastest ever World Cup goal.

The lifeblood of any football tournament, goals have not been in short supply.

The first 16 games produced 49, an average of 3.06 per game and, while that explosive rate has tapered off somewhat to a 2.83 average, the tournament is well on its way to breaking the record of 171 scored at France 1998.

The group stage produced a record 136 goals, beating the previous mark by six set in 2002 in South Korea/Japan.

'BRILLIANT GOAL'

The Netherlands are the leading scorers with 10, five of them coming in the first seismic shock of the World Cup - a 5-1 mauling of Spain that set the holders on the path to a first-round exit.

Robin van Persie's brilliant diving header against the Spanish stands as a leading candidate for goal of the tournament, though team mate Arjen Robben's blistering sprint and cool finish to cap the win is also a contender.

Obviously, Van Persie enjoyed his goal.

β€œIt was a brilliant goal, I have to be fair," said Van Persie. "It was a bit of a gamble but just before the pass I saw Iker Casillas out of his goal. It was a header, really a lob-header, but a great goal.”

With Spain's exit, the defending champions were eliminated in the first round for the second consecutive World Cup after Italy suffered the same fate four years ago in South Africa.

The World Cup has also been a disappointment for teams from the Asian Football Conference with not one managing a victory. Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea had three draws and nine defeats and all four went home early.

It was the first time since 1990 that no AFC team had won a game at the World Cup.

By contrast, teams from the Americas have swatted obstacles aside, with eight of the 10 representatives from the CONCACAF and CONMEBOL regions advancing to the last 16.

In addition to the usual powerhouses of Brazil and Argentina, Colombia put their name firmly in the mix with three straight group wins built on the attacking flair and cool finishing of James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez.

Buoyed by a World Cup start that was beyond all expectations, their long-suffering fans are shirking work, carousing in the streets and painting the nation yellow ahead of Saturday's knockout game against Uruguay.

No European team has won the World Cup on South American soil and, with England, Spain, Portugal and Italy among the big guns to fall at the first hurdle, UEFA's wait may continue.

(Editing by Ken Ferris and Nigel Hunt)

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