Anyone who has been to a Mexican football match has seen and heard it.
The rival goalkeeper is about to kick the ball out, so the crowd stand, raising their arms and wriggling their fingers. A sound is heard, rising in intensity. He approaches the ball and takes aim with his foot. As he makes contact, there is an enormous roar. “Puto!” is the word that echoes through the stands.
Like the Mexican wave, it is a stadium ritual seen throughout the country.
Yet the football chant is causing a stir on the global stage, with the controversy centred on the specific word choice.
Puto is understood in different ways across Latin America, but in Mexico it translates as a male prostitute or homosexual, and carries strong connotations of weakness and cowardice.
Now, FIFA has launched an investigation into homophobic chanting from fans of Mexico and Brazil during their World Cup game in Fortaleza.
They will likely escape with a warning for a first offence, but may face fines or point deductions should the chanting continue.
“The levels of homophobic abuse at some matches is totally unacceptable,” said Piara Powar, executive director of Fare, which monitors discriminatory behavior at the tournament. “There is some rapid education required before it begins to run out of control”.
This ritual chanting has been a persistent issue in Mexican football. The word is used in football stadiums by people who would never use it in typical conversation.
As Leigh Teschner of Soccerly explains:
“Children who aren’t allowed to use this word at the dinner table are excused when they join the thousands of fans at the stadium who yell this insult. Educated women who are likely not to use this word in an ordinary conversation also let go of their throats and scream the word “puto” cheerfully in unison with the rest of the crowd”.
It is not the first time that the word has been the focal point of a controversy about homophobic language. In 1997, the band Molotov had a huge hit in Mexico with a song entitled “Puto”, and they later faced a storm of criticism from protestors on their European tour.
Speaking in defense of the band, Gustavo Santaolalla told an interviewer from the magazine Retila:
“The word is in no way used as an attack on the homosexual community, at all. It’s used like the word “turro” would be in Argentina, for example, a guy who is…y’know… a wretch, a loser, a bad-vibe guy. It’s not an insult to a homosexual”.
Echoing this response, many people have taken to forums and twitter to defend the football chant, claiming that it is not homophobic.
Yet Mexican Radio Programmer David Rulo, disagrees that the word is open to interpretation. “All the meanings of puto stem from the same thing. It means a lot of things, but it all comes down to the same thing: a homosexual”.
The football website fanbolero claims that the chant has its origins in Guadalajara, and far from being an age-old stadium tradition, is actually a quite recent development.
“The chant began in Guadalajara, around 2003, soon after (the goalkeeper) Oswaldo Sánchez returned to the city to play with Chivas. He came from Club America and he had been at Guadalajara Atlas before. The local Atlas fans were annoyed with him for leaving and they wanted to make it known”.
The ritual quickly spread through the country and was even heard in the World Cups held in Germany and South Africa.
Jim Buzinski of Outsports is disturbed by the trend.
“It’s been amazing to see how many people have commented on various websites defending the use of “puto” and claiming it’s not homophobic. Some point to it as a Mexican tradition, ignoring the fact that its use at games only started in 2003”.
Yet Jonny Rico, of soccerly sees FIFA’s attitude as inappropriate.
“If FIFA was clearly against homophobia they would have already acted against Russia and several Middle Eastern countries” he said. Such countries “have some strict anti-homosexual laws that clearly discriminate against homosexuals. Instead of taking a clear stance against them, FIFA has awarded Russia and a Middle Eastern country (Qatar) the next editions of the FIFA World Cup”.
CONAPRED, the Mexican federal body charged with tackling discrimination, roundly condemned the use of the word at soccer matches, saying: “Seeking to eliminate this practice is not trying to stifle free expression, but avoid the normalization of sexism, machismo and homophobia, understanding that the full exercise of all freedom has to be done in respect to the rights of third parties, without discrimination”.
ESPN even promised to block the sound of the chant during live transmissions of Mexico games.
Under the international spotlight, the goal kick ritual might have to evolve or die. One possible solution to the problem might be in updating the insult to something that’s clearly not homophobic. The ritual could remain, but the word could be changed.
A twitter campaign has started:
#GritemosCorruptosEnLugarDePuto (shout “corrupt” instead of “puto”) with the aim of altering the chant. The suggested new word “corruptos”, is a response to the perceived hypocrisy of FIFA.
Mexico return on Monday to face Croatia. Under the watchful eyes of the world, it will be interesting to see how the fans respond.