EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey – The first of the much-discussed chants was heard a good hour before the game, on the concourse. Some Mexico fans uttered it casually, probably oblivious to the grand experiment they were about to walk into.
There it was. The homophobic slur that’s been a stain on the reputation of Mexico’s otherwise devoted and delightful fans.
Most of the 48,000 fans who filled MetLife Stadium for Friday’s United States-Mexico men’s national team friendly likely didn’t hear the PA announcement before the game, warning them against hateful chants and slurs. And chances are they also missed U.S. Soccer’s pregame tweet announcing a zero-tolerance policy toward “harassment or discrimination” which was echoed by the teams’ stateside fan groups, the American Outlaws and Pancho Villa’s Army – although, somewhat conspicuously, not by the Mexican federation’s Twitter account.
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) September 6, 2019
Let’s make this a fun one. And a respectful one. pic.twitter.com/hiq3IozQyV
— The American Outlaws (@AmericanOutlaws) September 6, 2019
— Pancho Villa's Army™️ (@VillasArmy) September 6, 2019
Friday’s game, a lopsided 3-0 win for El Tri, was notable for U.S. Soccer’s ramped-up efforts to rid games with its arch rivals of the despised four-letter word, which is inarguably homophobic – it’s a crass, Spanish term for a male prostitute – and usually reserved for the opposing team’s goalkeeper when he takes goal kicks.
While the slur emanates from the opposing fans, and therefore isn’t entirely the American federation’s problem or responsibility, the Mexican federation has been soft in its response. In recent years, it has put together a few half-hearted statements and videos, usually undermined immediately by its own players, who defend the chant with the trope that the word is cultural and folkloric and therefore not actually insulting, the same befuddling reasoning employed by Inter Milan fans to explain to Romelu Lukaku, their own player, why the monkey noises another team’s fans made at him weren’t, in fact, racist.
So before the game, and in consultation with the Mexican federation and the two fan groups, U.S. Soccer put in place a protocol to address the slur. In the first instance, an announcement would play over the public address system while the game kept going. In the second instance, El Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar had the discretion to stop the game while the announcement played again, keeping the players on the field. On the third occasion, he had a mandate to send the players to the benches as the tape rolled yet again.
It didn’t go as far as FIFA’s protocol of taking players back to the locker room and to then abandon the game entirely, but the latter has never actually happened. And U.S. Soccer was hopeful that less draconian measures might do the trick.
As it happened, the game didn’t lend itself real well to the chant. U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen, as per head coach Gregg Berhalter’s ambitious playing style, was instructed to play the ball out of the back as quickly as he could. That didn’t leave much time for the overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd to build up to a big, loud release of the chant. Still, a few quieter instances of the chant were heard in the first half, and then a few more in the second. Until, in the 71st minute, it was clearly audible when Steffen had to wait to take his goal kick as Mexico made a substitution.
Then, in the 74th minute, that announcement finally came, in two languages and clearly audible in every nook and cranny of the stadium. Fans were warned not to do it again. They booed in response.
But the chant was heard no more, although few opportunities for it remained. It never got to the point where the game had to be stopped.
The initiative was welcomed by the fan groups all the same.
“It’s something everybody should be working on, not just U.S. Soccer,” the American Outlaws’ Donald Wine said before the game. “But we’re glad it’s starting. It should be gone. There are people who are offended by it. I’m offended by it. It has to stop. Tradition or not tradition, whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have any place here.”
Other Outlaws members were skeptical that the game would actually be stopped, if it came to that. “I’ve heard this before,” said Jamara Asaah, one of the AO’s capos who had traveled from Arizona. “We’ve heard it multiple times, where they’re going to do something and then they don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re actually going to stop the games. I don’t think they’ll have the balls to do it. I just don’t think they’re gonna be able to get rid of it. It’s too ingrained.”
“I think that Mexican soccer fans are so hardcore,” echoed AO’s Ray Noriega, who’d flown in from Southern California to play the drums. “And so hardcore about their chant.”
This is a common refrain, that there’s no rooting out a chant that’s been bedrock to Mexico’s game day experience for decades. “It’s hard to control 50,000-plus people,” said Rich Guel, Pancho Villa’s bare-chested leader, before the game. His organization has made a significant effort to spread awareness of the chant’s offensiveness.
But Mexico’s fans stateside are disjointed. Getting a message to them is hard.
“I really believe that most of the people yelling [it] is a casual fan,” Guel said. “They go along with the flow. It’s really, really hard to control the masses.”
But if the problem seems intractable, the vested parties are nevertheless eager to keep looking for solutions. Because the status quo is too odious to stand.
“We’re just asking you to respect it for 90 minutes,” Guel said. “If you want to go home and yell it in your home, that’s your own thing. But you’ve gotta take [others] into consideration. If you go to a movie theater, you don’t sit there talking on your phone.”
There’s a long way to go yet to get that notion across and build a critical mass of Mexico fans to excise the chant from their match-going lexicon. But it was a start. And that’s encouraging.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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