Soccer-Jubilant Uruguayans leap to defence of hero Suarez

MONTEVIDEO, June 24 (Reuters) - Ecstatic Uruguayans are defending their beloved striker Luis Suarez tooth and nail after he bit an Italian defender during Tuesday's 1-0 win which propelled the South Americans to the World Cup last 16.

The Liverpool forward's lethal finishing is far more important than his straying teeth, says the small, sleepy agricultural country vying for their third World Cup victory.

"We needed to win, so if you have to hit you hit, if you have to bite you bite," said Barbara Giordano, a 26-year-old law student in Montevideo.

"It's the 'Garra Charrua'!," she exclaimed in reference to Uruguay's legendary fighting spirit.

Uruguay, a country of 3 million people sandwiched between soccer powerhouses Argentina and Brazil, has a major soft spot for the controversial Suarez.

He grew up in a poor family in the north-western city of Salto, where he looked after parked cars to help support his siblings after his parents split up.

He is arguably the world's most famous Uruguayan, along with president Jose Mujica, a mellow 79-year-old former guerrilla whose lips are famous for their philosophical musings.

Some Uruguayans are downplaying - or denying - the biting of Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder altogether.

"There was no bite, that's what the press says to kill Suarez," said Pablo Dilan, a 38-year-old print shop worker.

"Suarez's mouth slips again," joked leading Uruguayan newspaper El Pais.

That's a far cry from the reaction Suarez's infamous gnashing and apparent racist abuse have inspired outside Uruguay, where many are outraged that he appears to have done it again. FIFA is investigating the incident.

Some Uruguayans, however, are furious.

"This kid can't control his biting and attacking issues," said Luis Lara, a 52-year-old shopkeeper. "That makes all of us Uruguayans look bad."

Player adulation is not as fervent in Uruguay as it was in Argentina for Diego Maradona or in Brazil for Pele.

Others are gritting their teeth out of fear Suarez may be banned from the rest of the tournament. He has already twice been suspended from club soccer for biting.

"We couldn't believe he was doing it again," said Juan Santestevan, a 33-year-old web worker.

"It's a problem for all of us if they ban him... I don't think he deserves a ban because the other guy also elbowed him. Suarez gets out of control when things don't work out for him, but that's no worse than the kicks they gave him." (Reporting by Malena Castaldi and Irene Schreiber; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by Ed Osmond)