In the spring of 2016, the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol launched a campaign called Abrazados por el Fútbol—“Embraced by Soccer”—designed to promote respect, inclusion and “a more peaceful, more familiar and safer environment for all who love the sport.”
More specifically, the initiative’s target was the notorious chant that supposedly began in Guadalajara around 15 years ago and his since become a staple in Mexican stadiums and, increasingly, arenas throughout the Americas. If you’ve ever watched a match involving Mexico’s national team or a Liga MX club, you’ve heard it. The cheer builds momentum as the opposing goalkeeper makes his run to restart play, and then it crashes over him as he kicks the ball—“eehhhhhhh, p**o!”
But if CONCACAF has its way, that sound will be silenced during this month’s 12-team Gold Cup tournament, which kicks off Friday in Harrison, N.J. Organizers hope Red Bull Arena will be the first of many "Stadium[s] We All Want."
It’s the Swiss Army Knife of insults, carrying different connotations depending on the user, the target or the situation. But 'p**o' is always meant to degrade, and it packs its hardest punch as a homophobic slur. By early 2016, Mexican soccer authorities had had enough.
If the eight citations from FIFA and fines totaling around $124,000 levied against FMF are any indication, Abrazados por el Fútbol hasn’t been very effective. In fact, the chant has spread. During the 2018 World Cup cycle, FIFA has found fans from 12 nations guilty of “homophobic chants” during qualifying matches—Mexico, Argentina, Brazil. Chile, Honduras and Peru each have been cited at least three times. Costa Rica, which plays Honduras Friday evening, also has been found guilty.
National teams have been threatened with stadium closures and at the recently completed Confederations Cup in Russia, FIFA permitted referees to suspend and even abandon a game if chanting persisted after a warning. That didn’t happen, obviously. Fines don’t hurt fans, technical punishments are difficult to devise or enforce and so far, asking nicely just seems to stoke the flames.
The issue becomes even muddier when there’s debate about the nature of the term itself. For every person who claims ‘p**o’ is homophobic, there’s someone who wants to talk about nuance, context or oversensitivity. Among the latter is Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who said during the Confederations Cup, “I don't think the interpretation made internationally is right. I hope the Mexican federation will tell FIFA again that this doesn't mean what people think it means.”
Osorio has coached in his native Colombia as well as England, USA, Brazil and Mexico.
“In other parts of the world there are chants that generate violence, but I do not think this is like that,” he said.
Nevertheless, the pressure was on. The FMF continued to appeal to supporters, and during the tournament, Mexico veteran Andrés Guardado said he appreciated the fact that the cheer in question seemed to die down after El Tri’s opening game. The PSV Eindhoven midfielder also raised that issue of local and linguistic nuance.
"We hope they do the same at home and that people understand that it does help us a lot if they stop shouting it,” he told reporters. “As players we invite people to stop doing it, even though we believe that it isn't offensive and there are worse words and things that are done in the stadium. But that's how FIFA understand it."
That’s how CONCACAF understands it as well, and fans from Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and elsewhere will have to get used to that this month. The continental championship organizer intends to pick up the baton where FIFA left it as it launches its own initiative to end the chant and transform Gold Cup arenas into places of celebration.
CONCACAF General Secretary Philippe Moggio told SI.com that the "Stadium We All Want" campaign, which is scheduled to be unveiled early Thursday, “will focus on one of the very unique and great aspects of our game, which is the moment a goal is scored and we all come together to celebrate that moment. It’s a moment where you may end up hugging the person next to you and you don’t even know them.”
It’s a tall order, but long journeys start with one step and Moggio said CONCACAF is ready to take it. They don’t expect to eradicate ‘p**o’ this month. But they intend to make a dent through a campaign that’s going to involve stadiums, security, players, broadcasters and more. The time for nuance is over.
“CONCACAF believes the chant is offensive,” Moggio said. “It represents an offensive behavior in the stadiums, and we believe that because we’ve heard that from part of our fan base, it's incumbent on us to create an environment where we feel comfortable. We’re not here to engage in a long, philosophical debate about the nature of being offended, but to try to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable. If the chant is an obstacle to that, then we need to educate people on its offensive nature and try to eradicate it from our stadiums.”
There’s been progress made in American stadiums already, as MLS has had some success with combating profane chants. The sophomoric “you suck, a**hole!” goal kick cheer that once was commonplace in too many MLS venues isn’t nearly as popular or audible now. ‘P**o’ made its way north as well and has been an issue at a handful of stadiums, but different clubs have found ways to fight it.
Before last weekend’s rivalry match between the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, Chris Wondolowski was given a microphone and with his teammates and opponents standing behind him at midfield, he told the Stanford Stadium crowd, “We do not want to hear this chant—not tonight, not ever.”
Quakes COO Jared Shawlee added this:
Security has been beefed up at some MLS facilities and offending fans have been tossed. Last summer, Chicago Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez stood on his own at midfield inside Toyota Park and said, “An inappropriate and offensive chant has been used by some of our fans. It is unbecoming and certainly not reflective of the great city that we live in, and the best fans in Major League Soccer. Please be advised that if the chant continues and you are found to be participating, you are subject to removal. If you are near fans using offensive language, please advise stadium security so we can handle that as well.”
The Fire say it’s worked. For many, direct messaging plus zero tolerance equals the way forward. Some fan groups are even self policing. Minnesota United’s Dark Clouds announced before the season that anyone heard using the chant would be ejected from the supporters section and reported to security. Atlanta United fans, meanwhile, have reveled in a bit of the local pride MLS executives were hoping for during the ‘YSA’ days. Instead of copying what they hear from fans of other clubs, they’ve been turning ‘eehhhhhhh, p**o!” into an equally drawn-out “Hey Ya!” in honor of local hip-hop legends Outkast.
Those appeals for empathy, pride and collective creativity are a big part of the "Stadium We All Want." Moggio said ending the chant, rather than endlessly fighting it, is the aim. There will be literature, flyers and signs throughout the 14 venues hosting Gold Cup games this month. Players will make announcements like Wondolowski did at Stanford, and they'll film PSAs. The campaign will be part of CONCACAF’s print and digital work during the tournament, and fans will be encouraged to pressure peers and create new cheers that are festive rather than divisive.
“We have groups like Pancho Villa’s Army [a U.S.-based Mexican supporters club] who don’t stand for this type of behavior,” Moggio said. “They’re trying to create other types of noise for the times when they know this chant could be happening.”
If and when it does happen, only those in the stadium will hear it. CONCACAF controls the global TV feed, so viewers on Fox or Univision channels—plus those watching anywhere else on the planet—will hear ambient crowd noise taped from another portion of the match over the chant if it starts during a goal kick. The networks are on board.
“This is not something we condone. So why should we put it through to our audience at home?” Moggio asked.
During last year’s Copa América Centenario, Univision issued this warning to its viewers:
It won’t be necessary this summer thanks to technology, and CONCACAF hopes it will be unnecessary down the road because the chant will have become a thing of the past.
Moggio said fines or similar penalties aren't really an option. The Gold Cup is a neutral-site tournament, not a qualifier hosted and arranged by a particular federation. And CONACAF isn’t threatening to suspend or abandon games like FIFA did last month. Whether the issue is homophobia or racism or violence, that threat has proven to be rather hollow over the years, and that’s not how CONCACAF believes this battle will be won. The ‘p**o’ chant doesn’t change the game on the field and to this point, it hasn’t prevented a player from doing his job. There haven’t been technical ramifications, so Moggio said he’s reluctant to connect the play on the pitch to a social issue that's bigger than a given 90 minutes.
“We have a racism protocol that we’ve had in place for a long time that gets put into action when the integrity of the game is compromised—if it’s affecting the field of play. This is more about proactive education, rather than thinking about you could change the specific outcome in a stadium and not really eradicate the issue from the tournament. … We saw how difficult it is to actually affect the game and stop the game and put that protocol in motion,” Moggio said. “Changing behavior is not easy, but we’d like to point at the end of the Gold Cup at specific measures we’ve taken and hopefully having other stakeholders in this movement, over time we can eradicate this chant.”