I was 15 years old when the U.S. men’s national soccer team played in the Estadio Azteca against its archrival Mexico in a World Cup qualifier in 2013. The match left much to be desired after it ended, 0-0, but the fervor and passion I felt from Mexico’s supporters through the television was something I’ll never forget.
Every tackle and refereeing decision was met with a level of hostility I had never witnessed before. The loudest and most powerful demonstration of the night came after each U.S. goal kick, when the fans jeered the goalkeeper with an “Ehhhh” that got progressively louder until the audio through the telecast sounded muffled and distorted.
As U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan swung his leg to the ball and launched it toward the scrum of players in the center of the field, a thunderous “Puto!!!” erupted from the crowd. I didn’t know what the term meant, but it sounded like a small bomb went off in the stadium, and each time the fans made their presence felt, I wanted to be a part of it. This incredible display of passion was otherworldly to me at the time.
Six years later, this chant — which translates to “male prostitute” in English and acts as a homophobic slur — is still being hurled from terraces full of passionate Mexican soccer fans to this day. I very quickly learned its translation after the match and have had a gripe with it ever since.
The chant isn’t exclusive to Mexico, either, as Brazilian supporters made homophobic slurs toward Bolivia’s goalkeeper in their first Copa América 2019 match two weeks ago. For many Latinx soccer supporters, the chant’s objective is to degrade the opposing goalkeeper into thinking he is less of a man. Others think the term has no ties to sexual orientation, and it is used to conjure anger more than anything.
Because of this grey area, the discussion of whether this unacceptable and egregiously homophobic chant should be sanctioned or left by the wayside resurfaces and dissipates with each major international tournament, which has led to increased frustration from the LGBTQ+ and surrounding communities.
FIFA and its branch of governing bodies have done a half-assed job in trying to quell instances of this discriminatory behavior, resorting to meaningless fines and empty promises. The “Say No To Racism” campaign before the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2017 is just one of FIFA’s countless sad attempts to save face before a major tournament.
The campaign introduced a three-step procedure to deal with discriminatory behavior, stating that “referees will have the authority to first stop the match and request a public announcement to insist that the discriminatory behaviour cease, to then suspend the match until the behaviour stops following another warning announcement, and finally, if the behaviour still persists, to decide to abandon the match.”
It’s a great method in theory, but do you remember the last time this happened at a soccer match? Neither do I. The implications of suspending a match outweigh the path toward equality, which is evident because FIFA left the decision to the referee. Imagine being the sole decision-maker in suspending your employer’s lucrative soccer match because of discriminatory behavior, while already in the midst of putting your life at risk.
If FIFA actually empowered their referees to be staunchly against discrimination by ensuring their personal safety and job security, there would surely be more instances of delayed or suspended matches. Until supporters genuinely feel like their discriminatory outbursts will affect the outcome of a particular match, nothing will change. A cute tweet or Facebook post from the Mexican Football Federation will only encourage fans to double down. As specific federations continue to be fined for their fans that they have no control over, the same mediocre problem solving will persist.
Efforts in the United States’ Major League Soccer to stop this behavior have taken shape and have been effective. Los Angeles FC, which has a large Latinx following, partnered with GLAAD to ensure that there were sanctions for discriminatory behavior, enforced by an increased number of security personnel at each match.
Although substantial in worth, these changes are too few and far between for this decadeslong issue. The drive for equality begins when FIFA and the federations under its umbrella begin to suspend matches.
Is equality more important than profit for soccer’s Biggest Brother? Only time will tell.