MEXICO CITY — Mexican soccer officials seemed to breathe a sigh of relief last week: A homophobic chant shouted for decades in soccer games that had resulted in sanctions, fines and a threat to World Cup participation was not uttered in the last few matches.
But Mikel Arriola, president of Liga MX, the first division of Mexican soccer, issued a warning at a news conference last week. “Whoever shouts [it] has no place in the stadium. We have generated a protocol for people to be removed from the stadiums, but hopefully we will not have more sanctions,” he said.
FIFA, the sport's international governing body, sanctioned Mexico’s men’s national soccer team on Nov. 1 for its repeated use of the chant “p---," which translates to a homophobic slur that is often yelled at gay men. At most games, Mexico’s fans get loud when the opposing goalkeeper lines up for a goal kick and shout “p---!” in unison as the keeper kicks the ball.
The sanctions resulted in the squad being forced to play their next two World Cup qualifying home games in empty stadiums, and the Mexican Football Federation was fined about $109,000.
Mexico appealed the sanctions, but FIFA confirmed the sanctions on Monday.
At issue is whether the punitive measures will result in a real shift away from fans using the offensive term in games — and a reaffirmation of why it's offensive and problematic in the first place.
Guillermo Osorno, host of the LGBTQ podcast “The Future Is Ours," warned that the punitive approach of sanctions and fines is not the most appropriate in this case because, paradoxically, it incites the most virulent hatred on the part of soccer fans.
“It is positive that FIFA and the federation recognize that the shout is homophobic, but when they insist on punishing it, it provokes more anger against the LGBT community," said Osorno, who's based in Mexico City. "So, the fault that Mexico does not go to the World Cup would end up being homosexuals because ‘we are very sensitive' — it’s terrible."
Claudia Pedraza, who specializes in gender and feminism issues, is a member of the Barra Feminista, a female soccer fan club in Mexico that touts itself as an alternative space for fans of the game. She said the repeated use of the homophobic slur was a cultural issue that hasn’t really been addressed by sanctions or ad campaigns trying to stop fans from screaming “p---.”
“The campaigns do not use the word ‘homophobia.’ They try to eradicate the cry from the perspective of ‘respect’ and that this hurts the fans, that it affects the teams," Pedraza said, "but they do not even mention the real problem."
She said a cultural change is necessary at all levels so that the use of offensive terms are stopped in various sports venues — and this won't be achieved with sanctions or fines.
“These practices must be eradicated from the same coaches and managers who express themselves in this way with the players,” she said.
The homophobic slur's long history
For decades, the chant has plagued Mexico’s most popular sport, dating to the early 2000s when it was uttered in club team games before becoming a prominent chant during national team play. During the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup, the FMF was fined 11 times because of the repeated use of the chant.
When Mexico faced the U.S. in the Nations League final in June, the chant was heard again and the match had to be temporarily suspended. More recently, officials warned the chant had the potential to cost Mexico a trip to the 2022 World Cup and co-hosting duties for the 2026 World Cup.
Some fans don’t view the chant as homophobic, saying that it has multiple cultural meanings and isn’t intended to be a slur.
For Arturo Rodriguez, a soccer fan from San Luis Potosí in central Mexico, the chant isn’t meant to be homophobic. “Personally I don’t see it [as] offensive,” said Rodriguez. "It would be offensive if it is directed towards a homosexual, but in this case, it is very different.”
Experts on gender issues and activists from the LGBTQ + community see it differently, stating the slur is discriminatory, offensive and an example of the country's serious problem with gender issues and violence.
“Non-LGBTQ people use that word to vilify because, according to them, it means weakness and cowardice, that you are not enough, that you are worse than being a woman," said Alex Orué, executive director of It Gets Better Mexico, an organization that works to protect the rights of the LGBTQ + community.
"So, apart from the attack against the gay community, there is a very strong touch of misogyny,” said Orué, who said screams at soccer matches are only the tip of the iceberg in a series of attacks that, for many LGBTQ + people, begin in childhood.
“Long before you know what your [sexual] orientation or identity is, you are suspected by how you walk and how you speak,” Orué said. “The worst memories I have of school abuse were in sports because they are not safe spaces for us.”
Pancho Villa’s Army, one of the largest fan groups of Mexico’s national teams, condemned the use of the slur. “We in no way support any homophobic chants or any forms of violence displayed against our opposition during game days, online or wherever.”
The group said it’s hosting forums about abolishing the chant. “Change is possible if we are all willing to do our part in the right way.”
The Mexican national team began an aggressive PSA campaign in 2016 featuring the team’s top players in an attempt to stymie use of the chant.
In one of the most recent campaign videos, national team goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa underscored how continued use of the chant “might even cost us a trip to the World Cup.”
Prior to 2019, most sanctions against the chant were limited to small fines levied against the Mexican Fútbol Federation.
New FIFA protocols were added to the Disciplinary Code in 2019 to address racism and discrimination in soccer and “fight against this appalling attack on the fundamental human rights of individuals.”
Despite all these measures, the use of offensive and homophobic language persists at the highest levels of Mexican soccer. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, manager of Liga MX side Juarez, was recently sentenced to a fine and a three-match ban after he made homophobic and sexist comments after a match.
On Nov. 6, he began a news conference by addressing reporters and asking, “Are there old women? No, right? Not that. F---?” He later apologized for his “inappropriate” comments.
Mexico is second after Brazil in anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans violence in Latin America, according to the National Observatory of Hate Crimes Against LGBT Persons in Mexico by Fundación Arcoíris, or Rainbow Foundation.
Reports from the Mexican organization Letter S, an advocacy group, stated that from 2013 to 2018, there were 473 homicides of LGBT + people in Mexico. In 2020 alone, 79 hate murders were reported against people from the LGBT community, and more than half were trans women and almost a quarter were homosexual men.
Not just Mexico
But Mexico is not the only soccer team that has been caught having to answer for their fans’ behavior.
During the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Serbia and Uruguay were also fined for spectators yelling homophobic chants.
The Hungarian Football Federation was fined about $114,470 by UEFA and ordered to play their next matches without fans for “racist abuse from supporters and homophobic banners in the stands” at the Euro 2020.
Many have also singled out FIFA for punishing Mexico regarding the homophobic chants — while allowing Russia and Qatar, countries where homosexuality is criminalized, to host the 2022 and 2018 World Cups, respectively.
Nasser Al Khater, who heads the Qatar Soccer World Cup Organizing Committee, recently stated that LGBTQ + people visiting the country to attend matches should not feel insecure or threatened, but he hopes that they “do not show affection in public and respect the local culture.”
The Qatari penal code establishes that the act of provoking or seducing a man to commit acts of “sodomy and immorality” is punishable by three years in prison. Following his statements, organizations such as ADI LGTBI +, FELGTBI +, Fundación Triángulo, Gay Games and Amnesty International condemned Al Khater’s words and again requested that the venue of the tournament be changed.
Currently, Mexico sits in third place of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification for the 2022 World Cup with six games left. CONCACAF is the regional federation representing North America, Central America and Caribbean national teams. The top three teams from CONCACAF earn automatic berths to the World Cup.
Mexico’s next home match with fans allowed in the stadium is set for March 24, against the United States.
For LGBTQ and human rights activists, real change will go beyond sanctions and punitive measures and involve consistent training and education.
“The important thing is to train in gender issues, in strategies of nondiscrimination,” Pedraza said. “Those are the great omissions that all clubs and all federations have.”