Copa America: Why Mexican supporters won’t stop the use of homophobic chants

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 13: Fans of Mexico cheer for their team before a group C match between Mexico and Venezuela at NRG Stadium as part of Copa America Centenario US 2016 on June 13, 2016 in Houston, Texas, US. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/LatinContent/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 13: Fans of Mexico cheer for their team before a group C match between Mexico and Venezuela at NRG Stadium as part of Copa America Centenario US 2016 on June 13, 2016 in Houston, Texas, US. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/LatinContent/Getty Images) /

Just like in Brazil two years ago, Copa America is experiencing the uncomfortable problem of Mexican fans chanting a homophobic slur from the stands.

It’s a tradition in Mexico, but it’s rubbing people the wrong way every else in the world.

As the opposing goalkeeper is about to put the ball into play, Mexican supporters wave their arms forward and in unison chant ‘eeeehhhhhhhh’ until the goalie releases the ball, at which point they proceed to scream “putooooooo!”

The word in question roughly translates to ‘gay prostitute’ in English, though that’s only one of the many meanings attributed to the colorful term. Other meanings include ‘coward’ or ‘traitor’ and it depends on the context in which the word is used.

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As a result of those multiple interpretations, Mexican fans have failed to see the problem with the word, with many of them arguing that the chant is not meant to be homophobic, just distracting and intimidating to the opponent.

Regardless of the meaning and the opinions around it, the chant has become a big headache for FIFA since the 2014 World Cup. The football governing entity answered last month with a fine for the Mexican federation, though the move did nothing to deter fans from chanting the slur.

Mexican supporters have been using it during this year’s Copa America Centenario and it was lastly heard during the game between Mexico and Venezuela last Monday, which ironically also featured a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando at a gay nightclub the night before.

The fans that took a moment to pay tribute to those fallen were the same fans that moments later were chanting ‘eeeehhhh putoooo!’ to the Venezuelan goalkeeper, which indicates that something is being lost in translation. For Mexican fans the chant is a tradition, and while the word ‘puto’ is a derogatory term for homosexuals, many of those fans screaming it don’t perceive it as such.

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Former Mexican National Team goalkeeper Martín Zúñiga was at the receiving end of those chants as a player of Chivas Guadalajara. In his opinion, those fans screaming weren’t trying to insult him. Instead, they were just trying to have fun in the same way they do when they perform the wave or sing a team song.

“I feel that it [the chant] all started with the intention to have some fun and I don’t think it was directed at the people in the field,” he said. “I never took it personally. It started as a game, but it’s not anymore.”

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If Zúñiga’s understanding of the term is actually how it is perceived by the Mexican fan base as a whole, chanting “eeeehhhh puto!” from the stands might be more a crime of ignorance than a crime of homophobia.

The fan screaming the slur is unaware (or refuses to admit) that he/she is being homophobic. As a result, they can’t understand why they are being threatened with a punishment while other countries and cultures are allowed to berate and scream at opposing players in their own languages.

Still, whether they mean to be homophobic or not, the chant clearly needs to be eradicated. Ignorance is not an excuse for saying something that’s perceived as inflammatory and unacceptable.

While the use of “puto” might not be intended to mean “gay prostitute” by those screaming it in the stadium, the fact of the matter is that in other contexts thats exactly what it means. And if that’s what it means, it’s unacceptable, no matter what other meaning it has. Despite his understanding of the origins of the chant, Zúñiga agrees that the word needs to go.

“I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I come from a culture where we can be nasty to each other among friends, but at the end of the day it is an offensive word.”

Unfortunately, the soccer authorities responsible to address the situation are not going to do what’s needed to end the chanting. CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, who have dominion over Copa America, answered to the controversy on Thursday with a wordy press release that basically said nothing.

Governing bodies like FIFA, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF would need to start considering bigger punishments if they are to solve the issue. They could threaten with point reductions, closed-door games or even disqualification from tournaments, but everyone knows they wouldn’t actually follow through.

One look at attendance numbers indicates how important Mexico is to the business of soccer in terms of ticket sales and overall interest. Any real step that could be taken to deter wrong behavior from Mexican fans would have a dramatic financial effect. As a result, nothing more can be expected other than a press release.

The Mexican federation and its players have taken steps to address the situation, launching a campaign named “Ya Párale,” which means “Stop it.” Still, one look at the responses from Mexicans fans in Twitter is enough to know that the initiative is bound to fail.

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As different solutions are thought up by FIFA, CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and the Mexican federation, Mexico will continue their astounding run in Copa America. Juan Carlos Osorio’s men are set to face Chile in the tournament’s quarterfinal round on Saturday in a game that will feature great shooting, passing, goalkeeping and, sadly, some homophobic chanting.