What a chant reveals about attitudes to homosexuality in US stadiums
Although the stadium is so frequently described as a kind of secular sporting temple that its comparison to a house of worship seems worn out — especially given that what is frequently mythologised as play has now been commodified as spectacle to be consumed by an increasingly global television and internet audience — it is inevitable that those who love the game will create deep bonds with some of its most important rituals, not least of which is chanting. Like most supporters’ passion for some aspect of football, the love of chanting often emerges from a germinal state upon experiencing a match in person. It can be absolutely electric. It becomes meaningful.
Semantically more important than mere song and syntactically not limited to the repetition of a single sound or word, chanting endows supporters with voice, allowing them to express themselves and participate in the match in different ways. Extensions of those who sing them, these chants also implicitly or explicitly reveal a wide-range of cultural practices and understandings. Even in the most insipid chants like Club Brugge KV singing the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” as Andrés Mendoza banged in an away goal against AC Milan in a Champions League match in October 2003 — there is an excellent Deadspin article on its history by Alan Siegel — or the Chicago Fire supporters group Section 8 belting out the popularised-by-Tetris “Korobeiniki”, chants say something not only about what is happening on the field but also about those who sing them in the stands.
One of most resounding chants in US football in the early twenty-first century originates in Mexico. It can be quite difficult to pinpoint the genesis of a chant but it is often said that this one began in Guadalajara in 2003. Oswaldo Sánchez — who, after a spell at Club América, returned to la perla del occidente not with his previous club Club Atlas but with the local giants, and bitter rivals, CD Guadalajara, more commonly known as Chivas — lined up to take a goal kick. Reverberating in the stadium, fans’ voices collectively united to roar: “¡Puto!”
Puto is a fascinating word. Employed as an adjective, it frequently functions as an equivalent to the English word “fuck” (for example, “¿Dónde está el puto control remoto?” or “Where’s the fucking remote?”). Used as a noun, according to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, the term means “Hombre que tiene concúbito con persona de su sexo” or a “man who has coitus with a person of his sex.” Although dictionary definitions help us understand how words are used, their descriptive or prescriptive natures never quite fully encapsulate how speakers actually use language. It is useful, therefore, to question how words are used in particular contexts. In Mexico, puto is not a synonym for other terms like homosexual or gay, two frequently employed words in Spanish, but rather it frequently acts as a derogatory obscenity more similar to words like joto, maricón and puñal. It is, in that sense, similar to words in English that range in texture from the ostensibly less offensive “bender”, “fairy”, “fruit” and “homo” to the more clearly offensive “faggot”.
Even the harshest opponent of the chant would not argue that most fans who yell “¡Puto!” at an opposing keeper do so thinking its level of offence is equal to the English word “faggot”. It is, as apologists would argue, much more likely that it were used to indicate a coward, a kind of easily frightened shadow of a man. Putting aside that puto takes a deeper, more-hateful meaning on other occasions, as well as in many other places in the Spanish-speaking world, the word never really escapes its odious origins. That is, it never really loses its meaning as being other, as lying outside of what is heteronormative. The puto — in this case, the opposing keeper — is simply not a real man. (Parenthetically, Mexican crowds seem to be equal opportunity abusers: as reported by the daily newspaper Milenio, in a women’s national team match against Chile in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara in 2011 fans yelled out “¡Puta!” or “Whore!”).
In the context of the United States, those who participate in the chant most probably do so for cultural reasons: its crescendoing build-up and appealing roar replicates something that has become hugely popular within the past 10 years in Mexico. Heard sometimes — not always, however, as Univisión and other channels sometimes censor it in the US — when watching the Liga MX or the national team, it has been imported into the stadium in the United States. Although that has been the case for several years when El Tri visit the United States for one of their many friendlies, it recently has come to be chanted in several Major League Soccer stadiums. Perhaps most curiously, this year it has been yelled in the first, as well as what might be called the most “American”, of all soccer-specific venues in the United States: Columbus Crew Stadium.
When support for the US national team is at a premium, Columbus Crew Stadium has come to be used as a de facto national stadium. Although several nations draw huge crowds in specific metropolitan areas — Haitians in Miami and Salvadoreans in Washington, DC are two obvious examples — there are few places in which fans of El Tri would not outnumber, if not dwarf, fans of their northern rivals in a game played in the US. In order to maintain a home field advantage, US Soccer has placed our clásico, our Concacaf derby, in Columbus.
Crew Stadium, like other grounds, is not merely an edifice but is also a nexus of individuals. Its fans are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds but in the stadium everyday practices and understandings are suspended and new ones are employed. Among these is another chant hurled at an opposing keeper taking a goal kick, a full-throated “You suck asshole!” which primarily but not exclusively emanates from the Nordecke, the supporters section. Used throughout MLS — despite frequently attempts of the league and clubs to eradicate it by both carrot and stick: Red Bull New York, remarkably, offered supporters’ clubs $2000 dollars each if they could go four games in a row without deploying the chant — it has come to be followed by the imported insult of “¡Puto!”
Of those who watch their local side, it is the member of the supporters group — the club officially recognizes Crew Union, Hudson Street Hooligans, La Turbina Amarilla, and the Buckeye Brigade — who is most redolent of Eduardo Galeano’s description in Soccer in Sun and Shadow: “Although the fan can contemplate the miracle more comfortably on TV, he prefers to make the pilgrimage to this spot where he can see his angels in the flesh doing battle with the demons of the day.” To use Galeano’s mythologising language, the fan is many. The individual becomes the collective. As is the case throughout MLS, a league that strongly courts Latino fans, America — or perhaps rather, its twenty-first century incarnation as ‘Merica’ or ‘Murica’ — and América — the Spanish word used to refer to both Americas, North and South together, as well as a corresponding broader continental identity — are unified. America and América as one, even in the stadium that hosted USA v Mexico in World Cup qualifying in September 2013.
Expressions against discrimination and for equal rights for homosexuals have pervaded MLS stadiums in 2013, ranging from rainbow LGBT pride flags in Columbus, as well as most if not all other stadiums in the league, to an enormous, impressive tifo created by the Timbers Army in Portland in a game versus Chivas USA whose two banners read “Pride, not prejudice” and “Football fans against homophobia”. Coupled with a much-publicised agreement to work with the You Can Play Project, a group “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation” according to its mission statement, the league has taken proactive steps in fighting homophobic discrimination. Despite this, however, very little has been expressed publicly about the import of “¡Puto!”
Much has been made about the return of Robbie Rogers to MLS and professional football. If the ex-Crew player, who played with Andrés Mendoza at Columbus in 2010 and 2011, is to not be subjected to homophobic abuse, this matter must be addressed by individuals, clubs, and organising bodies like MLS. In addition to broader anti-discrimination awareness campaigns like MLS’s Don’t Cross the Line or the UK charity Kick It Out, direct and practical interventions demand to be made. An excellent — and undeservedly mocked, at least in the nether regions of Twitter — first step was recently made by Liverpool: the compilation of a list of words deemed offensive and unacceptable by the club. In addition to clear communication from club to staff and, later, to supporter, teams like the Columbus Crew must also take decisive steps toward standing up for tolerance. Measures, which should range from expulsion from the ground to longer, perhaps lifetime, bans for both individuals and supporters groups and their members, need to be taken. If not, might we someday live in a world in which the Red Bulls attempt to pay their fans not to hurl homophobic slurs at players?
If homophobia is to be unrooted from the game, powerful organizations like US Soccer, Federación Mexicana de Fútbol Asociación, Concacaf and Fifa must step in. If that is to happen, individuals need to not only admit that the problem of homophobia in the football stadium exists but rather also be willing to act to eradicate it. If the fan is many, the fan cannot stand idly by and permit discriminatory behaviour, much less participate in it as ritualised spectacle like ¡Puto! Given football’s track record with race, it seems like a long, perhaps interminable, road toward meaningful progress awaits. It is, however, the right road to go down, even if this is just the beginning.