By Nate Ryan and David Adams @dadams7308
Four days after the Orlando massacre, U.S. men’s soccer team captain, Michael Bradley, took the field for a crunch Copa America quarter final wearing a rainbow arm band.
It was one of many statements around the world in solidarity with the LGBT community.
In the soccer world it meant even more, especially in the midst of an intense Copa America centennial tournament of the top teams in the hemisphere, hosted for the first time in the United States.
That’s because of controversy swirling over the use of a homophobic ritual chant by Mexican soccer fans - “Ehhhhhh, puto” - (Ehhhhh, faggot) to demean the opposition team.
Use of the chant, in both club and national team games, has raised eyebrows for some time, including high level discussions by the hemipshere’s soccer officials to find ways to stamp it out. Those efforts have so far been largely in vain with Mexican fans stubbornly ignoring pleas to show more respect, including a recently launched campaign by the Mexican soccer federation.
The fans were in full voice when Mexico played Chile in front of a packed California stadium on Saturday for a place in the Copa America semi-finals. The "puto" chant was unabated, though the fans were stunned into silence in the second half as Mexico slumped to a 7-0 defeat.
Prior to Univision’s broadcast of the game, viewers saw a statement on their screens warning about possible offensive fan noises. In the stadium, audio and video announcements urged fans to refrain from abusive language.
U.S. soccer, led by its fan club, known as the American Outlaws, is also taking a stand.
The Outlaws, with 187 chapters and over 32,000 members nationwide, this week challenged the Mexican fans to quit the “puto” chant, a challenge that will be put to test on Saturday night when Mexican plays Chile in front of a packed California stadium for a place in the Copa America semi-finals.
“For us it was about establishing that continuing culture where racism, homophobia, discrimination, and sexism just do not occur in our group. We don’t want to have something in our group that is like that,” said Dan Wiersema, spokesman for the Outlaws.
The “puto” chant is generally used during opposition goal kicks when raucous fans will chant the word as the goalie winds up and prepares to strike the ball downfield. After seeing the growth of the chant spread, occasionally to stands of Major League Soccer, the American Outlaws decided it was time to make a stand.
The Outlaws observe their own code of conduct, dubbed “Act Above” centered on respect for fans of all races, nations, genders and lifestyles. “As our organization has grown, American Outlaws has evolved,” said Wiersema. “It started with just pushing our code of conduct, reestablishing it, rewriting it, putting in non-negotiables in terms of discrimination, homophobia, sexism, racism, and just continue to make sure that our members are aware of what American Outlaws stands for.”
In a moving video released this week by U.S Soccer titled “One Nation,” several of the U.S. men’s squad, led by their captain, Bradley, voiced support for the 49 Orlando victims. “What happened in Orlando was senseless,” Bradley says in the video. “And are hearts are with everyone affected.”
Defender Jermaine Jones adds; “Some people unfortunately believe in hate.”
“They want to silence the voices of people who look differently, thing differently and love differently than they do,” adds midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.
CONCACAF, the governing body for the sport in North and Central America and the Caribbean, has struggled with the question of how to respond to the chant for the past two or three years.
Under the rule of now disgraced former president Jeffrey Webb there was a reluctance to even acknowledge the homophobic nature of the chant with some official arguing it was merely a random insult.
However more recently the organization has been looking, privately, at ways to try to encourage Mexican fans to move away from the practice with some believing the Mexican team players themselves need to take a stand.
Mexican soccer officials also recognize the “puto” chant is unacceptable, even if deeply rooted in soccer tradition
According to Israel Márquez, communications director of the Mexican Football Federation, Mexico has made efforts to try and abolish the offensive chant and recognize it’s severity, yet it continues to be a problem in their fan bases.
“We are aware of the issue and we have taken measures,” Márquez told Univision News. The federation launched a campaign “Abrazado por el Fútbol” (Embraced By Football) to promote tolerance. “We are sending a message of equality and respect,” he added.
For Copa America, the federation launched a second campaign, titled “ Ya párale"! (Come On, Stop It!) to specifically tackle the abusive “puto” chant. At half time in all three Mexican games so far the squad’s three goalkeepers have gone to the end fo the pitch to urge fans to cease the chant.
However, Márquez recognized limited success so far. “It’s complicated,” he said.
North of the border, Wiersema and the Outlaws hope that by taking a stand at the Copa America tournament all fans, both in the United States and Mexico will to rethink their language.
“For our rivals to the south (Mexico), they have something that they need to deal with, and I don’t know how they fix it, but we certainly don’t want that to become a regular feature or a part of the culture of American soccer,” said Wiersema.
For now, the Outlaws’ decision to “Act Above” is sending a powerful message and setting a precedent for the future of American Soccer culture that they work to improve with every rally cry. “The more we can send that positive message,” Wiersema concluded, “I think that’s better for American soccer as whole. And we have a powerful voice and we’re willing say that.”
Additonal reporting by Brain Ayala and Simon Evans @sgevans