Mexican soccer fans may not be in the mood for celebrating much this week, after the country’s historic loss to Chile on Saturday night in the Copa America quarterfinals. In happier times, though, my compatriots are known for two very different celebrations. The first one is the “Mexican wave.” A beautiful feat of coordination, the wave was first put on display during the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico City. I was only 11 years old, but I remember the awe and anticipation of seeing that human tide make its way around Azteca Stadium, gathering speed with each passing turn. There was also the rumbling of feet pounding against concrete, and the venerable Mexican coliseum hummed. The effect was dizzying, as if the stadium itself was rotating in preparation for liftoff. When it finally reached us, my parents and I stood up, letting out a long “aaaah!” and mimicking the sound of a wave come ashore. It was, well, magical, and all in good fun.
The other famous Mexican celebration isn’t much fun at all.
At some point during the last decade and a half, Mexican fans have taken to the habit of yelling “Eeeh, puto!” while the opposing goalkeeper takes a goal kick or clears the ball from his box. The origins of the chant are blurred and ultimately irrelevant. What matters is its offensive nature. The word “puto” has many different meanings in Mexico, a country in which even the word “madre” can be anything from a term of endearment to a truly shocking insult. Mexicans use “puto” to describe cowardice (“No seas puto”) or exaltation (“¡Qué puto coraje!”). All that might not be of concern to FIFA, international soccer’s governing body: After all, worse thing are yelled from the stands both in Mexico and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, though, “puto” can also be used as a truly nasty homophobic slur.
In an effort to force Mexican fans to stop uttering the chant during international competition, FIFA has repeatedly threatened the country’s soccer federation with a series of sanctions, including playing upcoming World Cup qualifiers in empty venues. In response, Mexico’s national team has launched a couple of sensible campaigns, in which the players urge people to refrain from the repellent chant.
“Let’s make a pledge to stop the yelling against the opposing goalkeeper,” says Mexican goalie Alfredo Talavera. “Stop now!” Talavera later reiterates, alongside teammates Jesús Corona and Guillermo Ochoa.
Mexican fans are not persuaded. During the country’s matches in the ongoing Copa America tournament in the United States, “Eeeh, puto” could be heard louder than ever. And even though Mexico won’t be playing in the semifinals of the tournament, the sheer number of tickets sold to Mexican fans in the United States probably means you’ll still hear the chant when the U.S. team plays Argentina on Tuesday in Houston and when Colombia plays Chile Wednesday in Chicago.
Not everyone agrees that the chant deserves to be erased from soccer. Some have argued that, in contrast to the brutal racist chants heard in Europe, Mexican fans don’t intend to be homophobic. The argument is not completely baseless: While European hooligans are fully conscious of what it means to mimic monkey sounds when pestering a player born in Cameroon, Mexican soccer fans might not necessarily mean the chant as a homophobic slur.
As a lifelong Mexican soccer fan who has heard and spewed his share of insults, I am not sure whether the crowd’s behavior is truly driven by a desire to dispute the opposing goalkeeper’s sexual orientation. Still, the hypothetically harmless nature of the mob’s motives is not enough to defend the chant. What matters is not the chant’s cause but its pernicious and painful effect. It has no place in soccer, and FIFA should do all it can to force Mexican fans to stop their annoying routine, including imposing the empty venue penalty or even more severe sanctions, such as banning Mexico from future international competitions. (Fixing the problem in the country’s domestic league is another matter entirely.)
In the meantime, companies such as Univision (where I work) have taken steps to stand up against the chant. During the broadcast of Mexico’s Copa America matches, Univision’s commentators have read an unprecedented statement in which the company explains it does not “condone or endorse” homophobic language and it strives “to make sure that our own coverage and commentary is respectful and inclusive of all, including the gay community.” According to Univision’s numbers, close to 5 million viewers followed Mexico’s matches during the tournament’s group stage and likely heard Univision’s statement, which clearly echoes GLAAD’s 2014 campaign to “stop the slurs,” an effort also directed at Mexican fans.
Sadly, during Copa America, Mexican fans seemed immune to any type of persuasion. During Saturday’s wicked beating in Santa Clara,Calif., tens of thousands of them subjected Chile’s goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to another deluge of mindless prejudice. Even worse: Once it became clear that Mexico was in for its most severe loss in the country’s long history in official competition, Mexican fans began yelling “Eeeh, puto!” at their own goalkeeper, a shocked Guillermo Ochoa.
It might take an unprecedented punishment from FIFA to finally bring Mexican fans to their senses. In the meantime, they would be wise to remember one of the first things every Mexican child learns in school — the words of Benito Juárez, one of Mexico’s most revered political figures and the country’s only Mesoamerican Indian president: “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.” Respect for others is, indeed, peace.