The crescendo was familiar. The homophobic climax as forceful as ever. Again, and again, and again, it filled the Pasadena air. “EeeeeehhhhHHHHH,” came the primer from Mexican national team fans. And then the punctuation: “P***!”
It rattled the Rose Bowl on Saturday night, an inescapable feature of the 2019 Gold Cup’s opening-night soundtrack. And in one sense, it was alarming: Here, on international television, in front of some 65,000 people, was an anti-gay slur, the Spanish equivalent of “f*****,” being hurled in unison by hundreds of fans at an opposing goalkeeper.
Yet in another sense, it was routine. Perhaps even easy to ignore. After all, authorities did just that for years, as the taunt spread from Mexican club games to the national team last decade. It soon became a community staple, a rite of passage for match-going fans, a so-called tradition that follows El Tri almost everywhere it goes. FIFA fined Mexico’s soccer federation (FMF) for “homophobic chants” at 11 different 2018 World Cup qualifiers. They appeared anyway at the World Cup proper, then again at friendlies, then again on Saturday night.
Because of course they did. Everyone knew they would. Prior to Saturday, I set out to understand the chant’s apparent inevitability. As I rambled to one source, explaining that I planned to write about it whether or not it marred Saturday’s opener, the source interjected: “It will.”
So then why, if its presence was so foreseeable, weren’t the FMF, CONCACAF and others able to stop it?
Or, some might argue, a better question: Did anybody really try?
FIFA’s crackdown, and Mexican minimums
First, to disprove the chant’s inevitability: FIFA did stop it. Last year, in Russia, with a comprehensive crackdown that coerced cooperation out of the FMF. Global soccer’s governing body opened disciplinary proceedings after the chant accompanied German goal kicks during Mexico’s World Cup opener. FIFA not only fined the Mexican federation, but threatened more sanctions. It also promised to revoke Fan IDs – essentially tickets – and eject anybody caught yelling the slur.
The team responded with pleas to its supporters: “NO GRITES ‘P***.’” Prominent players reiterated the message. But their reasoning was problematic. “Let’s not risk another sanction,” Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez said. And Marco Fabián: “There are different rules now. It would be a shame for [fans] to not be allowed in. ... We should [try to] avoid punishments.”
Never did they, nor the Mexican federation, acknowledge that the chant is homophobic. Which it is – even if the word has multiple meanings. FIFA has decided so. Disciplinary descriptions make that clear. So does FARE’s global guide to discriminatory practices in football, which declares “p***” a synonym for “f*****.” The word, according to the guide, refers “to gay men in a derogatory way.”
But the FMF has never admitted this. Its refusal constrains its efforts to eradicate the chant. Instead, it has appealed fines – about which supporters don’t care anyway. It launched one unspecific campaign in 2016. It has done the absolute minimum to avoid serious punishment. FIFA’s relatively heavy hand forced FMF to do more. CONCACAF, on the other hand, hasn’t done nearly enough.
Whose responsibility is the chant?
The two parties most responsible for Saturday night’s cries, and for an atmosphere that is hostile toward LGBTQ fans, are the FMF and CONCACAF. Probably in that order.
A third entity involved is Soccer United Marketing, or SUM, the agency that partners with both the FMF and CONCACAF to promote and sell their products. Its influence, however, is limited.
There have been discussions among the three about how to best address the chant. Back in 2017, after all, CONCACAF general secretary Philippe Moggio called it “the No. 1 stadium issue we face.” But the discussions heading into the 2019 Gold Cup appear to have led to dead ends. No meaningful action was taken. No LGBTQ advocacy groups were retained as partners. It’s unclear why. The FMF has done nothing of substance to address the chant since the 2018 World Cup. (FMF, when asked by Yahoo Sports about recent efforts, pointed to the aforementioned 2016 campaign, saying it has been maintained since.)
CONCACAF, meanwhile, re-upped its “State of Goal” campaign, an educational initiative from 2017 that supposedly “rais[es] awareness on diversity and inclusion.” It features vague, often tuned-out messages in stadiums and, infrequently, on social media. They don’t include a single mention of the chant, homophobia or sexual orientation. In the short-term, it’s ineffective – and quite likely will be in the medium- and long-term as well.
That multiple entities could potentially aid chant-eradication efforts is part of the problem. Some feel others are responsible – a crutch they use to absolve themselves of blame. It’s bystander apathy in the abstract: Each organization does less than it should to help victims – gay soccer fans everywhere.
So what, exactly, is CONCACAF’s stance on the chant?
Yahoo Sports asked the North and Central American soccer confederation, simply: “Does CONCACAF have a position on whether the chant is homophobic?”
CONCACAF responded with four paragraphs, not one of which directly answered the question.
“Our priority is to ensure that every spectator at the Concacaf Gold Cup experiences an inclusive and enjoyable environment,” it said in an email. “Therefore, we will address any fan behavior that causes offence or that affects the integrity of the game.
“One of the most positive aspects about the Concacaf Gold Cup is that it brings together such a variety of cultures. But this diversity can also lead to sensitive situations when the fan behavior of one nation is offensive to fans from other communities.
“Education is therefore essential to help stimulate a more harmonious and inclusive environment. This is why we have been working on the ‘Let’s Live in a State of Goal’ inclusivity initiative, with all of the federations and stakeholders across our region.
“In 2019, this campaign is being allocated significant amounts of time and space across all promotional assets around the Gold Cup Venues - from LED signage and PA announcements to big screens. This will help us encourage fans to consider the impact their behavior will have on others.”
In other words: No. CONCACAF is unwilling to even confirm publicly that the chant is homophobic.
It does have a fan code of conduct, which encourages match-goers to remain “respectful and courteous.” It states that each and every one of them “has the right to expect an environment where … fans enjoy the football experience free from ... disorderly behavior, including foul, sexist, racial, obscene, offensive or abusive language or gestures.” (It doesn’t mention homophobia.) Failure to abide by that code, it says, “is subject to sanctions, including ejection, banishment and arrest.”
Would the chant, assuming it’s at least considered “offensive,” therefore result in ejections? Yahoo Sports asked.
“We work closely with the stadium authorities and apply official measures to assess each issue on a case-by-case basis,” CONCACAF responded.
There were no reports of mass security interventions on Saturday night. There was a public address announcement, midway through the first half, “urging fans to refrain from discriminatory chanting,” per CONCACAF. If they didn’t, the PA warned, the game would be halted. But of course they didn’t, and it wasn’t.
Such warnings, from CONCACAF or otherwise, rarely have teeth. There is occasional talk of point deductions and empty stadiums. None of it ever comes to fruition. Nor would it necessarily be fair.
But if not overly harsh, attention-grabbing punishments … then what?
A complex issue ... and a desperately simple one
One reason CONCACAF might be keeping its Gold Cup messaging vague: Many executives and observers argue that reprimands targeting the chant only strengthen fans’ resolve. The climax, they’ve noticed, becomes even more forceful in defiance.
It’s one of many dynamics that make the problem so vexing. Throwing more resources at it might only bring minimal reward. Plus, El Tri’s fan base is uniquely vast. A successful crackdown in Los Angeles wouldn’t necessarily translate to Houston or Mexico City. Nor does one in Russia by FIFA pertain to the United States and CONCACAF. A traveling circus is different than one centralized bonanza, and makes the problem not only vexing but overwhelming.
That, however, is no excuse for leaning on bland video-board announcements, and certainly no excuse for utter inaction. If FIFA curtailed the chant last summer, and if clubs have stamped it out, the FMF and CONCACAF can at least do more to try. The latter must hold the former accountable. There is the worry that explicit admonishments might backfire, but what is the downside? The status quo is unsafe. The PR-tailored “initiatives” are practically worthless. CONCACAF will claim that altering behavior takes time, and that it is chipping away LED board by LED board, but how about chipping away ejection by ejection? By threatening fans with expulsion, and following through?
Perpetrators could not possibly be easier to identify. Some even out themselves on social media.
They not only partake in the homophobia. They flaunt it. Because the entities that brought them to the Rose Bowl never specifically told them it was out of bounds.
In that sense, the chant is both a terribly complex issue and a desperately simple one. CONCACAF, not once in the buildup to the tournament, publicly mentioned it or homophobia. Never told fans they couldn’t yell “p***.” Never told them what the consequences would be if they did, and never proved to them those consequences actually existed.
Until somebody does, the word will keep echoing around North America’s largest stadiums. And many LGBTQ fans will continue to feel unwelcome.
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