Mexican soccer fans travel en masse to the World Cup, bringing strong support for a squad that’s famous for stalling out in the sport’s top tournament. They also bring a well-known chant, which is screamed from the stands during opposition goal kicks.
The chant, a homophobic slur, commonly rings out in stadiums across Mexico. But fans have taken the “tradition” abroad, shouting it in World Cup contests against Cameroon and Brazil this month.
That's attracted the attention of international TV viewers and soccer officials. Spanish-language broadcaster Univision has muted the sound during goal kicks in Mexico games. And FIFA, soccer’s governing body, said Thursday that it’s investigating the matter – potentially harming the Mexican team's standing.
“It’s completely homophobic,” says Alejandro Brito Lemus, director of the Mexican magazine Letra S, which covers HIV/AIDS and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues, referring to the word used.
Mexico has slowly moved forward in protecting LGBTQ rights in recent years. Mexico City recognizes same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court has done the same for unions in some states, and tolerance has become more common in major cities. But curbing the homophobic chant may prove problematic, as many Mexicans see its use in soccer as good, clean fun and an attempt to pressure the opposing goalie – nothing to be scandalized over. Many in Mexico say they are nonplussed by the scandal and that they separate the soccer stadium from the street.
“We Mexicans say too many naughty words – even at weddings,” says Erika Carmona, a young fan and coffee shop waitress. She says the chant is "not discriminatory.”
But Mr. Brito and other members of Mexico’s LGBTQ community consider the shout no laughing matter in a country with an enduring machista culture.
“The [Mexican] Football Federation and soccer authorities have not done anything to educate fans or raise awareness,” Brito says.
“When the fans of one team scream [this phrase] at the other team’s goalie, they want him to fail,” says Ilán Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University. Javier Ángeles, a network administrator and soccer fan in Guadalajara, agrees that in the "soccer context," the offensive word is used to call out cowardice, not imply someone is gay.
But using a homophobic word, even if it’s not meant to indicate that one actually thinks someone is gay, doesn’t make it OK, Brito says.
“The connotation is cowardice, more than thinking of a homosexual. But, the [gay person] is the one that is acting cowardly, doesn’t have courage,” he says.
Mexican media report that the chant started in Guadalajara with the oft-underachieving squad Atlas – known for its barra, or rowdy young supporters that show up at every match. Fans took to the chant at the 2004 pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, which was also notorious for another cry: Some Mexico supporters screamed, “Osama, Osama,” at the US goalkeeper, trying to rattle him by referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.
The offending phrase currently being investigated by FIFA “was probably the nicest thing shouted at the United States goalie” in that 2004 tournament, says Mr. Ángeles.
Mexico is not the only fan base under fire. FIFA is also looking into misconduct by Brazilian fans for homophobic slurs, as well as Croatia and Russia for the use of anti-Semitic banners at games this month. Some fans say FIFA’s actions are hypocritical: It awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively, despite shoddy human rights records and Russia's passing anti-gay laws last year.
“FIFA is so ... opaque, so it’s looking into this sort of thing” as a distraction from its own issues, says Ángeles.
“If you compare this to what happens [in other countries], it’s something pretty inoffensive,” Ángeles says, pointing to incidents where fans from other teams have thrown bananas at African players or held up racist signs in the stands.
FIFA has the authority to punish the Mexican team by deducting points for its fan behavior.
Change on the horizon?
Mexico plays Croatia on Monday in a match it must win or tie in order to advance to the second round – although if FIFA strips points from Mexico after its investigation into these chants, El Tri could be left out of the playoffs.
Some observers worry that even if FIFA penalizes Mexico fans, outlawing the phrase may only make matters worse.
“Prohibiting it is going to make it so it’s shouted with fury and behind people’s backs and more radically,” lawyer and human rights activist Antonio Martínez wrote on his personal blog.
“Call me crazy, but I don’t feel indirectly offended or discriminated against by the shout,” Mr. Martínez writes.
Brito is also skeptical that clamping down on fan behavior this way will have the intended long-term effects.
“It’s part of a culture and it’s not going to end by decree,” Brito says.
“It’s probably better to think of a cultural solution, awareness, and an educational campaign – something more pedagogical than punitive.”