For more than a decade, rowdy fans at soccer matches across Mexico have delighted in shouting "Ehhh... puto!" — a slang term meaning "faggot" or male prostitute — as the opposition goalkeeper runs up to kick the ball. This practice is generally accepted in Mexico as a light-hearted attempt to distract the goalkeeper, but Mexico's Football Federation is now facing mounting criticism about its defense of what many people feel is a homophobic chant.
Having previously tolerated the shouts, football's governing body FIFA took action last week, fining Mexico and four other countries for what it deemed "insulting and discriminatory chants" by their supporters during recent qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup.
The Mexican Football Federation has appealed the $20,000 fine incurred by El Tri fans during the 3-0 victory against El Salvador at the Estadio Azteca on November 13. Guillermo Cantu, the general secretary of the federation, told ESPN last week that "you have to understand some words culturally" and claimed the chant "is not discriminatory".
Many supporters consider the chant a harmless Mexican soccer tradition and feel that efforts to censor it infringe their right to freedom of speech. Ricardo Olvera, a Club America fan who was born in Mexico but raised in the United States, told VICE Sports the term can mean "dumb ass" or "bitch" and is only used by fans to gain home field advantage by distracting the opposing goalkeeper. Many critics of the term are "people that are not born in Mexico and don't fully understand our culture," he said.
"It's a chant that in a weird way unites fans cheering for the same team. The word gets lost in translation and is not a homophobic slur. Honestly, it's fun and everyone laughs and gets a kick out of doing it," added Tomás Salinas, a Mexico fan from San Antonio, Texas.
Others acknowledge that the word is politically incorrect but insist that it's not aimed at gay people. Mauro Álvarez, a Mexico and Tijuana supporter from Los Angeles, said: "[I'm] not defending it but I hate how they label us homophobic. Just cause we use the word doesn't mean we're anti-gay, however it is a strong curse word that should probably be left out of football."
Juan Jacobo Hernández, the president of Mexican gay rights organization Colectivo Sol, told VICE Sports the chant is unquestionably offensive to the LGBT community. "It is a cultural thing but it's cultural discrimination, cultural homophobia," he said. "Calling football players 'puto' is not just about making them miss their kick, it's a way of degrading their masculine abilities and saying they're not real men."
Dr. Rainer Enrique Hamel, a professor of linguistics at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City (UAM), said the term is widely used in private across Mexico although it has become more taboo to utter it in public in recent years. Whatever the context, Hamel said, it remains an "offensive and homophobic" term even if not intended that way: "the word puto refers to a gay man, with the implication that he's a prostitute, and that all gays are prostitutes, so it's an insult."
The polemic chant was first heard in soccer stadiums in Guadalajara in 2003, when Atlas fans vented their anger at their former goalkeeper Oswaldo Sánchez, who they felt had betrayed them by joining their bitter local rivals Chivas. The practice gained global notoriety during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when Mexico was charged with improper conduct after fans used the loaded term in a match against Cameroon.
Mexico's response was exemplified by Miguel Herrera, the national team coach at the time, who claimed the term was derived from the word "putotzin" in the ancient indigenous language of Nahuatl. Its original meaning, he joked, was "forcing a bad clearance by the goalkeeper". In that instance FIFA's disciplinary panel dismissed the charge and said the shouts were "not considered insulting in this specific context".
The chant has since spread across Latin America. Argentina, Peru and Uruguay were also fined $20,000 each last week after their fans adopted the chant, while Chile was fined $70,000 for repeat offenses at four different matches.
Enrique Toussaint, a Chivas fan from Guadalajara, told VICE Sports he does not condone the chant but believes financial sanctions are not the answer. A better solution, he said, would be to encourage "awareness and [provide] information so that fans understand that there's homophobia behind the chant."
Yet as the only country that has appealed the fines so far, Mexico's stance has left it open to accusations that it is condoning public displays of homophobia.
"They're machistas, pure and simple machistas, they're patriarchal patrons who have the power and the money to decide whether or not it's a derogatory term, but this just reflects their own prejudices and their own fears," Hernández, the Colectivo Sol president, said of the Mexican Football Federation. "It's a vulgar justification for insulting and degrading people."