- Sporting events have a long history of colorful language being used by fans towards opposition players.
- For the past decade, FIFA has been trying to eliminate a particular chant with homophobic connotations from games featuring Mexico’s national team.
- They face an uphill battle, because there is a cultural disagreement regarding how offensive the word in question actually is.
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
Warning: This piece is about inflammatory language. As such, I’ll be spelling out multiple swear words and terms often considered offensive.
As the ball is placed down, the crowd behind the goal exudes energy in noisy anticipation. In unison, they sustain the sound, “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” growing ever louder as the opposing goalkeeper approaches the ball to take a goal kick. The second his foot makes contact, the entire section bellows, “PUTO!” at the top of their lungs.
This chant can be heard frequently at soccer matches in Liga MX, one of the only leagues that can match the European elite in terms of popularity and support. It’s also been a staple of games featuring Mexico’s national team, and the sport’s governing body, FIFA, has been trying to stamp it out for years.
Understanding why will take us on a journey exploring culture, the evolution of language, the concept of offensiveness, and why some sounds are more fun to make than others. Thanks for joining me.
So, what’s the big deal with this chant?
First, a quick bit of background on its origin. Soccer has a long history of, shall we say, “lively” fan culture, particularly in England. There, organized chants run the gamut from clever and creatively self-deprecating to as shockingly vulgar as singing songs about incidents when Manchester United players were killed in a plane crash and Liverpool fans were crushed to death during a stadium disaster. I’m not kidding.
By contrast, one of the more benign chants involves yelling “You’re shit AHHH!” at the goalkeeper immediately after every goal kick. Given English soccer’s massive influence on the game, I feel fairly safe in hypothesizing that Mexico’s goal kick chant originally evolved from its British counterpart. So, what’s the big deal?
Well, for around a decade now, FIFA has been trying to eliminate the chant due to its homophobic connotations. But, here’s where we run into our first issue. Many fans of the Mexican national team don’t view the word that way, which makes it difficult to convince them to stop using it. And this issue isn’t perfectly clear cut.
“P*to,” the word in question, has a somewhat literal, somewhat functional translation fairly close to the phrase “bitch boy” in English. In certain parts of Mexico, it can also be used to refer to a gay male prostitute, a usage much more easily construed as a slur. However, it’s generally not considered as egregiously offensive as the English word, f*****, which does have a direct Spanish counterpart, “maric*n”. If fans were yelling that after every goal kick, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.
What’s in a name? A sh*t by any other would smell as foul.
Apologies to the distinguished Mr. Shakespeare for misquoting him. I thought of this quotation because part of this situation’s difficulty originates from the reality that to many fans, the word p*to simply means “bitch.” They don’t see anything homophobic about it. I learned this firsthand during the 2014 World Cup, when this issue started gaining mainstream attention. While watching a game with a college classmate with Mexican heritage, he expressed surprise that people outside of Mexico considered the term anti-gay. To him and his friends, it didn’t mean anything of the sort.
I want to pause for a moment to make clear that I’m not defending the use of this chant; I’m simply exploring why it’s still around. I think its usage will eventually be eliminated, because the, “I’m not using this word in the way you’re receiving it,” defense typically indicates cultural change is imminent. This has already happened in my lifetime. Call me naive because maybe this isn’t true everywhere. But, among my friends and the various internet circles in which I engage, hearing the phrase, “That’s so gay,” used to describe something one doesn’t like has almost completely disappeared.
And yet, the, “I don’t mean it like that,” defense was incredibly common before society broadly decided that this phrase was no longer acceptable. I should know, as I likely uttered that exact rebuttal on multiple occasions. “That’s so gay,” and “f**” were staple insults of my teen years. It wasn’t until a college soccer teammate of mine came out as gay that this changed.
After he told me, I said something like, “I hope I’ve never said anything offensive or upsetting around you.” He replied, “Well, you have, but it’s okay because you didn’t know.” That never really sat right with me. It didn’t feel “okay,” and I can honestly say that from that moment on, I quit using those phrases cold turkey.
Before that moment, I truly believed that using those terms was harmless. I didn’t mean to cause any offense to anyone homosexual, and I certainly didn’t view gay people as “less than” straight people, so there was no problem, right? It wasn’t until I understood how the words I used directly upset someone that I cared about that this lesson sunk in. So that’s the main problem in a nutshell. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that the words we use have no impact, until we directly see that they do.
So, what’s the other problem?
It almost sounds overly simple, but phonetically, the word “p*to” is satisfying to utter. And this isn’t just my opinion, because this word was never part of my vocabulary. Since my wife earned a post-baccalaureate certification in speech pathology, I’ve been lucky enough to learn a thing or two from her about language itself. Consider this.
The sounds we make when we use the letters b, d, g, k, p, and t are known as “plosives.” And… they’re fun to say. You can put a lot of force behind them, and they’re great for venting frustration. So are the sounds known as “fricatives,” which are made by the letters f, s, v, and z. Try it out yourself with these two new words you just learned! Unless you already knew them. In that case, my apologies for doubting your impressive vocabulary.
But seriously, say “plosive” and “fricative” out loud, and try not to feel that delightful linguistic tingle on your lips. Interestingly enough, most swear words have at least one (and often more) of these sounds in them. That’s part of what makes them effective. This is true across languages and even time periods.
Highlighting that last point, one of my favorite books as a kid was called Horrible Histories: Wicked Words, and it was about the evolution of language. At four foot ten inches tall, carrying that book around in middle school, I was a real hit with the ladies, let me tell you. Anyway, one of the ancient swear words featured in the book was “fummet,” an Old English term for deer poop. And with a fricative start and plosive ending, you can bet I enjoyed saying it.
As another thought experiment, I tried to come up with what would be the least satisfying utterance to express emotion. I landed on “loingy,” a totally made up word with no plosives, no fricatives, and an awkward transition between the two syllables. It literally doesn’t roll off the tongue. It’s probably the exact opposite of a word like “p*to” or “f*ck.” But, let’s return to the issue at hand.
Why is the chant still around?
To quickly summarize, the crux of the issue is the difficulty in stopping people from using a word that’s fun to say forcefully and not 100% black and white in terms of its offensiveness within its own culture. Therefore, FIFA’s efforts to eliminate it have quite understandably proven ineffective.
According to this article from Sporting News, the Mexican soccer federation was sanctioned due to its fans using the chant nine separate times in the 2018 World Cup qualification cycle alone. Punishments ranged from fines to being forced to play matches behind closed doors, and nothing has really changed. The same article shows clips of the referee warning fans to stop using the chant during the USA vs. Mexico Nations’ League semifinal match from only a couple weeks ago.
And…I don’t see this changing anytime soon.
Why? Well, soccer fandom is incredibly tribal. Supporting a particular team easily becomes an identity for tens of millions of people. This is where you can witness the curious verbal sparring you see between rival fan groups, in an attempt to one-up each other. The progression usually goes something like this:
- “Ha-ha, my team won the most recent match between my team and yours.”
- “Yeah but my team is having a way better season.”
- “Good for you, it’s been forever since your team actually won anything. We’ve won the league twice and three cups in the last decade!”
- “Cool, but your club still has no history. Bunch of plastic fans who hadn’t even heard of the team before 2010.”
- “Eff you, you know nothing about football, blah, blah, blah.”
If one team doesn’t have the upper hand in the most recent category, its fans can simply move on to the next one until they find something to latch on to. But if the opposition team in question has yours beat in too many (let alone all) of these categories, that’s when things can turn nasty.
It’s also why current campaigns to end the Mexico goal kick chant, which appeal to people’s kinder, gentler natures, aren’t likely to work.
When an identity is deeply threatened, all bets are off. Especially when factoring in the relative anonymity and power of groupthink present in a stadium. And when your team losing threatens a strongly held identity, all some fans want to do is lash out and cause pain to opposition players and fans.
This often happens subconsciously, whether they realize they’re doing this or not. Further, a scenario like the one I described above, where a college teammate helped me realize the pain my casual usage of homophobic language caused him, is far more powerful on an individual level than at scale. So for now, if FIFA really wanted to get serious about eliminating the “p*to” chant, they’d make Mexico forfeit games in which their fans use it. Until then, I don’t see it going away.
Believe it or not, writing this piece made me realize there’s still a great deal I’d like to discuss. So, next week, we’re going to talk about the evolution of offensive language, whether or not it’s true that, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” censorship, and what level of responsibility we have to our fellow humans when it comes to language choice.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your take on this issue? On a lighter note, did you already know the words “plosive” and “fricative,” or did you learn something new today? Reply to this email and let me know!