Mexico's men's national soccer team will be forced to play two more World Cup qualifiers in empty stadiums after its fans continued yelling an anti-gay slur at matches in October.
FIFA, soccer's global governing body, previously sanctioned Mexico for the infamous "p***" chant. In June, it announced that the team's first two home World Cup qualifiers would be played behind closed doors.
It later halved that punishment, allowing fans to return to Mexico City's Estadio Azteca for qualifiers last month. But fans resumed the chant at those games, against Canada and Honduras. On Monday, FIFA announced another two-match stadium ban, along with dozens of other disciplinary actions against soccer federations around the world. It also fined Mexico's federation roughly $110,000.
The chant has plagued Mexican soccer for years. Officials refused to reckon with it until recently. The Mexican soccer federation (FMF) promised to crack down on it in 2019, and again this year. But fans belted it during opposing goal kicks at friendlies and regional tournaments this past spring and summer. Its presence at two Olympic qualifying games in March led to the first stadium ban.
For years, FIFA limited its sanctions to fines. The FMF fought those fines, and refused to acknowledge that the chant was homophobic. The Spanish word “p***” has multiple meanings, and fans have long argued that when they scream it en masse, it has nothing to do with homosexuality.
FIFA ruled last decade that it is indeed homophobic. FARE, a leading anti-discrimination group, has explained that the word refers “to gay men in a derogatory way.” This past May, FMF president Yon De Luisa acknowledged in an interview with Yahoo Sports that the chant is, in fact, homophobic and "discriminatory."
“We understand that, even if it doesn't go with that intent, if other people feel it that way, then it is that way,” De Luisa said. “That's why we want to eradicate it."
Facing harsher punishments beginning in 2019, Mexico launched campaigns to address the chant. De Luisa promised a wide-ranging effort to silence it. FMF and CONCACAF, the North and Central American soccer governing body, committed to following FIFA's three-step protocol, which calls for match stoppages and PA announcements whenever the chant is heard; temporary match suspensions — with players returning to locker rooms — if the chant is heard again; and forfeits if it arises a third time.
Since those promises, Step 1 has been enacted multiple times, including at CONCACAF Nations League matches in June and the qualifier against Canada in October. Players gathered in the middle of the field as match authorities urged fans to stop.
The chant, though, has continued, and Step 2 has never been enacted.
The retrospective punishments, however, have continued. De Luisa told Yahoo Sports in May that he worried about harsher FIFA punishments. "Absolutely," he said. "And FIFA was really direct and strict, and they told us and other federations, 'If you don't solve your problem, sanctions will be applied.'"
He reiterated that concern again at a news conference in June, after the first spectator ban. He laid out consequences that could follow beyond empty stadiums: point deductions, forfeits, or disqualification from competitions. "If we don't stop this now, the effect it could have on the Mexican soccer industry could be devastating," he said.
Head coach Tata Martino added: "We're very worried. We're worried about what's coming, about the sanctions that could possibly be next, and because we don't want to be pulled away from our fans. Any national team that wants to accomplish important things depends on its players and its fans."
The latest punishment will presumably apply to Mexico's matches against Costa Rica and Panama in January and February. Mexico, which sits atop the eight-team North and Central American qualifying group, plays both of its November games away from home, against the U.S. and Canada.
Ironically, if the punishment is upheld, and those winter games are played in empty stadiums, it will likely ensure that a full Estadio Azteca greets the U.S. when it travels to Mexico City for a qualifier in late March.
Mexico won its first empty-stadium qualifier in September against Jamaica, 2-1.