The Mexican men's national team can make a case that it is the most popular soccer team in two countries. So it is jarring to consider that fan allegiance to a controversial stadium tradition could ban El Tri from next year's World Cup and strip Mexico of co-hosting duties in 2026.
For about two decades, some El Tri fans gathered in packed stadiums in Mexico and the U.S. have incorporated an anti-gay slur into a chant aimed at opposing goalkeepers. The word has various definitions, among them "male prostitute" or "sodomite," depending on the cultural context. In Mexico, it is a vulgar insult synonymous with cowardice when directed at another person and is considered offensive toward the LGBTQ+ community.
As the overseer of the country's national teams, the Mexican federation (FMF) had ignored this behavior even in the face of FIFA punishment. It has been fined 15 times since the 2014 World Cup because of the chant. Yet in the aftermath of receiving the most significant sanctions to date -- two official home games behind closed doors -- the federation is fearful that defiant Mexico followers at this month's CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. will solicit potentially dire consequences such as a ban from next year's World Cup in Qatar.
The FMF has embarked on an all-out media campaign against the chant since FIFA's disciplinary committee announced the latest sanctions June 18 because of a recurrence of the behavior during CONCACAF pre-Olympic qualifying in the spring.
"The chant is discriminatory and is moving us away from FIFA competitions," Mexican federation president Yon de Luisa said in response during a news conference. "To those who think it's fun to [do it], I have news for you. It's not."
De Luisa's conference itself served as an example of the disconnect that exists regarding the slur's usage in parts of Mexican culture. The FMF boss uttered the slur while condemning its use among fans.
"Soccer itself is a medium for change, and we need to recognize how impactful language can be," said Janelly Farias, a defender on Mexico's women's national team who is gay. "When people are using homophobic language, whether it's intentional or not, it can be very detrimental."
Neither De Luisa's appeal nor the stadium bans are likely to curb the chant outright. In resisting to cease and desist over the years, fans have argued that the chant is a part of Mexico's sports culture, and that it bears no anti-gay bent when used in stadiums.
What's more, the perceived hypocrisy of FIFA policing the behavior of Mexico fans in the stands but remaining silent on laws oppressive to LGBTQ+ communities in Russia and Qatar -- the most recent World Cup host and the next in line, respectively -- has also fueled resistance.
"Context and connotation is important," said Valeria Moulinie, a 33-year-old Tri fan from the Mexico City suburb of Naucalpan. "Clearly, people aren't chanting at goalkeepers and attacking them for thinking they're gay. [FIFA] is riding the wave of political correctness. I think it's pathetic for them on one hand to have a World Cup in Qatar and on the other, sanction Mexico for a chant they perceive as discriminatory."
LGBTQ+ advocates say intent is irrelevant, especially within a country where hate crimes against the marginalized continue to grow at an alarming rate.
"The word means the same everywhere [in Mexico]," said Enrique Torre Molina, a Mexican activist and co-founder of Colmena 41, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ visibility. "It has a nasty, homophobic connotation in any sense. For many gay men, it's the last word they hear before they're attacked, or killed."
The advocacy group Letra Ese reported last year that 117 LGBTQ+ people were murdered in Mexico because of their sexuality or gender identity in 2019. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination, a Mexican government agency, found that the country ranked second in Latin America from 2008-20 in total hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, behind only Brazil. Seven out of 10 LGBTQ+ people who participated in a national poll reported suffering discrimination.
"You never know who might be insulted or hurt by what you're saying," Farias said.
Spinning out of control
Oswaldo Sanchez confirmed in 2019 that he was on the receiving end of the chant as early as 1999, when fans of Guadalajara-based Liga MX club Atlas turned their ire on their former goalkeeper after he joined crosstown rivals Chivas.
Another account suggests it was not until 2003 that Atlas fans targeted Sanchez with an adapted version of a popular chant reserved for college football kickoffs at games in Monterrey, in northern Mexico. Regardless, members of Barra 51, Atlas' most well-known fan group, have long claimed they are responsible for popularizing the chant beyond its local scope.
During the semifinal match of the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament between Mexico and the U.S. in Guadalajara, the home crowd directed the chant at American goalkeeper D.J. Countess as he set up his goal kicks. After every errant shot or pass crossed the end line, participants in the crowd, in sync, would raise their arms in front of their face, shake their hands and intone the first part of the chant, a sustained "Ehhh" din in anticipation of the kick. At the moment ball met foot, the first part of the chant swelled to a crescendo, immediately followed by the climax -- the slur's two syllables -- in unison.
Mexico routed its rival with a 4-0 victory, denying the United States a spot in Athens. Also that night, a large U.S. television audience heard as microphones captured every booming insult launched from the stands.
The chant had been unleashed onto the world. It made its way to the sport's biggest stage in time for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. When fans of other countries briefly adopted it at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil -- the host fans even used it against Mexico in the group stage -- FIFA finally felt prompted to act.
The organization's disciplinary code, last updated in 2019, states that "discriminatory or derogatory words or actions on account of race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, language, religion, political opinion, wealth, birth or any other status or any other reason, shall be sanctioned." For national teams, punishments range from fines of 20,000 Swiss francs (about $21,600), home games behind closed doors, forfeiture of matches or expulsion from FIFA-sanctioned competitions.
Mexico's 15 fines over the chant have totaled 4.5 million pesos, or $227,000, according to the Spanish sports daily Marca.
"There is a risk of losing [the co-host bid] for the 2026 World Cup if this doesn't end now," De Luisa said. "How is it possible that we would want to host a World Cup if our stadiums are empty [for those games]? This needs to end now."
The proposed punishments would also mean fans opposed to the chant would be liable for the behavior of others.
"Once I realized the destructive power of the word, I knew [chanting] was wrong," said Angel Calderon, a 33-year-old teacher from San Luis Potosi who last attended a Mexico match at Azteca Stadium two years ago. "I have gay friends, and talking to them about it opened my eyes."
Such an extreme measure would also mean a huge financial loss for the federation, based on how much El Tri raked in during its last few World Cup cycles.
Mexico was in danger of missing out on Brazil because of a disastrous qualifying campaign the previous year, and the federation stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. An absence from Qatar could mean millions more this time around.
"At minimum, you're looking at $800 million," said Walter Franco, director of research and analysis at sports market research firm Victus Advisors and an adviser to Liga MX clubs. "But it can be much higher than that. In 2013, they stood to lose about $600 million, but sponsorship and television contracts are renewed at higher rates, not to mention how much money they lose from pre-World Cup friendlies that suddenly become meaningless."
Slow reactions and double-talk
In 2016, the FMF launched several media campaigns with the aim of muting the chant entirely. Those efforts have focused on the potential on-field consequences yet make no mention of the slur's anti-gay context. De Luisa's description of the chant as discriminatory was a considerable deviation from the federation's previous approach to the issue.
"Even if there isn't the intention to discriminate [with the chant], if a person is affected or offended, we have to stop doing it," De Luisa said in his conference. "That's been our posture to this point, and we have to continue on that point."
But previous statements from top officials, players and coaches later tasked with asking fans to stop the chant portrayed a culture at odds with the designation of the chant as anti-gay. Sanchez, who also starred for El Tri, said he found it strange that fans would heckle him in such a way, but that the behavior itself was not disruptive to his performance.
"It really made me laugh," Sanchez said in the 2019 interview. "I don't see it as homophobic, or offensive. Mexican people understand the word [is used] to have fun."
When former national team manager Miguel Herrera was asked about the chant during the team's World Cup run in 2014, he waved it off entirely.
"It's part of our colloquialisms," Herrera told Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui. "In that moment, you're not thinking about disrespecting someone or insulting homosexuals. It's just a word that's been around for seven or eight generations."
After FIFA levied the initial fines linked to the behavior in 2015, Guillermo Cantu, the Mexican federation's secretary general at the time, classified the chant as something unique to Mexican fans, a traditional aspect of the stadium experience.
"It's not discriminatory," Cantu said in 2016. "[FIFA] has to understand the cultural nature of some words."
Mexico appealed those fines in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international body based in Switzerland. In doing so, the federation used a defense that Mexico fans commonly recite: The word is employed not as an anti-gay slur, but rather as a tool to distract the goalkeeper into an errant kick. Therefore, the context lies in calling the player a coward, not making a comment on sexual orientation.
The court upheld the fines in January 2017. Faced with the possibility of continuing to answer for fan misbehavior, the federation has recently produced a series of PSA videos starring some of El Tri's biggest stars, including goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and Napoli striker Hirving Lozano, actively asking fans to stop.
At matches involving El Tri in Mexico and the U.S., reminders of FIFA's three-step protocol to curb discriminatory behavior -- created in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup -- are relayed continuously. The stadium's PA system will ask fans to stop the first time the chant manifests itself. If there is a second time, the referee is instructed to stop the match. A third occurrence can result in abandonment of the match. Through it all, offenders identified by stadium security or by other fans can be escorted out.
In Mexico's Gold Cup opener on Saturday against Trinidad and Tobago, the first two steps of the protocol were again enforced. In the 98th minute of the match, the chant was heard even after the game was in danger of being abandoned. CONCACAF confirmed that Wednesday's game against Guatemala would be played with fans after reports earlier indicated it could be played behind closed doors because of that reoccurrence.
Prior to the weekend's match, referees at June's CONCACAF Nations League semifinal and final matches involving Mexico, in games against Costa Rica and the U.S., implemented the first two steps in response to the chant. It has yet to go beyond that point.
"It's a step in the right direction," Farias said. "I'm glad something is finally being done about this, but I think we can be more direct by saying this is a homophobic chant and be very head-on about it."
Forward Stephany Mayor and defender Bianca Sierra, other players on Mexico's women's team who identify as LGBTQ+, have participated in their share of activism, as Farias has. None of them, however, has been featured in any of the FMF's ad campaigns.
"Visibility is important," Torre Molina said. "It carries a different weight when someone who has been the target of discrimination asks you to be empathetic to their cause."
Adding insult to injury, the women's national team could be called upon to be a sacrificial lamb, as one of its upcoming matches in September could technically be used to fulfill part of the two-game fan suspension. A statement sent by FIFA to ESPN Mexico indicated that "The sanction refers to the two next official home matches to be played by representatives of the Mexican Football Federation independent of their category."
Endgame on the horizon
The Gold Cup, which started last weekend and runs through Aug. 1, offers the first sign within an official tournament setting of whether FIFA's sanctions or the federation's campaigns are effective. De Luisa mentioned the possibility of more severe crackdowns against fans who are caught engaging in the chant but admitted that it's difficult to enforce a permanent ban because of El Tri's propensity for playing in stadiums across Mexico and the U.S.
At Mexico's most recent friendlies, played the week of June 27 in Nashville and Los Angeles, usage of the chant appeared to be reduced but not eradicated. In the July 3 match against Nigeria, TV broadcast microphones captured fans chanting after Stanley Nwabali's goal kick in the 60th minute.
"If we don't stop this now, the effect on Mexico's soccer industry could be devastating," De Luisa said. "We hope other sanctions never come and this is the first and last one FIFA imposes on us."
Mexico has been banned from playing in a World Cup before -- in 1990, when the federation was caught fielding overage players at a youth tournament two years earlier. As a result, federation president Rafael del Castillo resigned and Mexico was left out of soccer's premier competition for the third time in 16 years. The men's national team has subsequently qualified for the next seven World Cups.
Still, the lingering memory from that experience, coupled with what's at stake in just a few short years, has raised tensions among the federation's top brass.
Meanwhile, activists and some of Mexico's own elite players continue to lobby the FMF to embrace a more frank discussion on homophobia and machismo in order to reeducate fans and end the chant once and for all.
"There's a stigma attached to fighting for change, equality and what it means to be an ally," Farias said. "It's very difficult."
Still unable to curb the behavior from Mexico fans, soccer authorities have also recently had to deal with similar issues elsewhere, as the Hungarian federation was given a two-game stadium ban for fan conduct at Euro 2020. Already under pressure for its decision to allow Russia and Qatar to host its most important tournament, FIFA might well make an example of Mexico and simultaneously force its fans to abandon the chant through the nuclear option -- an unprecedented second World Cup ban in just over three decades.
"I don't know [if it will come to that]," Farias said. "Part of me hopes the fans learn the lesson, but I just don't know."