Trigger warning: discussion of homophobic slurs
I have spent most of the last month watching football (soccer), sometimes up to six hours a day. I’m not usually a sports fan, but every four years, I make an exception. I love the World Cup.
This World Cup has been an interesting one, and not just because there were a ton of upsets, especially early on in the tournament (Spain not making it out of the group stage and Costa Rica’s appearance in the quarterfinals being just two big ones). The reason I have chosen to review the World Cup for Queereka is that it has also been interesting for the international queer community.
Prior to the start of the tournament, a survey was conducted by Stonewall, an English LGB advocacy organization, and Football Addicts, the Swedish company that produced the Forza Football fan survey app, asking fans if they would be comfortable if a player on their national team came out as gay. The results, released in May, show that there is widespread support for gay players coming out, particularly in Europe. Unfortunately, the three countries with the highest levels of support for gay players (Ireland with 83% of respondents reporting they would be comfortable with an openly gay player on their national team, and Sweden and Denmark both with 79%) did not qualify for this World Cup. But twelve of the qualifying teams (from the UK with 73% to France with 50% and including the host country Brazil with 67%) reported 50% or more support.
Also prior to the start of the World Cup, on June 16, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay called for gay players to come out. She said, “I encourage players, sports people to declare their sexual orientation without fear. That’s the only way they will find the right to sexual orientation accepted. They are role models, it’s important to send this message to their fans as well.” Her call, along with the findings of the Stonewall/Football Addicts survey, went unheeded.
There have been no openly gay players at this World Cup. Furthermore, there are few openly gay players playing soccer anywhere in the world. Those few current and former players who have come out have commented about the difficulty doing so, particularly in the European leagues. Additionally, unlike we are starting to see in many US sports leagues, there are few active and vocal allies in the soccer world at any level.
Throughout the run-up to the World Cup and during the tournament itself, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the international organizing body that puts together the World Cup, has made a big deal about its commitment to “fighting all kinds of discrimination within football and within society as a whole”, particularly racism. The quarterfinals coincided with the annual FIFA Anti-Discrimination Days and prior to each of the four games, both teams and the referees gathered behind a large poster reading “Say No To Racism” for a picture. FIFA claims that this special protocol would “spread the unequivocal message that there is no place for racism in football.”
However, FIFA’s response to instances of both racism and homophobia occurring during the World Cup has been lackluster. A Neo-Nazi was allowed to wander around in the field during play for several minutes in the Germany-Ghana game until Ghana’s Sulley Muntari escorted him off the field. FIFA investigated Russia and Croatia’s fans for anti-Semitism and Mexico and Brazil’s fans for homophobia but didn’t punish any of the teams.
The use of a homosexual slur as a chant has become one of the biggest controversies of the World Cup. Mexican fans have been chanting “puto” when the opposing team takes corner kicks, free kicks and goal kicks for years, since 2003. They brought it with them to the World Cup. In both Spanish and Portuguese, “puto” means “a male prostitute” and has homophobic connotations. During the group stage of this World Cup, they chanted it in their games against Cameroon, Brazil and Croatia, and Brazilian fans picked up the chant and used it against Mexico. Fare, the fan-monitoring group, reported Mexico to FIFA after their first game against Cameroon. FIFA did respond promptly by opening an investigation of the use of the chant though the ultimately decided not to do anything about it.
There are three official responses to the concerns of groups like Fare and GLAAD that are worth looking at in more detail: those of the television companies broadcasting the tournament in the US, the Mexcian coach, and FIFA itself.
Univison and ESPN are the television companies that had the broadcast rights to show the World Cup to viewers in the US. Univision had the Spanish language rights, ESPN had the English language rights. After GLAAD contacted Univision about the chants being heard in the broadcast of Mexico’s games, Univision released a lovely statement about how it was going to work to make its broadcasts inclusive. Part of their statement said, “Univision Communications supports a World Cup that is inclusive, one that celebrates the diversity of the sport we love and can be enjoyed by all – absent what can be the hurtful consequences of certain words. In this regard, we strive to make sure that our own coverage and commentary is respectful and inclusive of all, including the gay community.” ESPN took a slightly different approach, claiming that it wasn’t their fault the chants could be heard on their broadcasts. They reported, “One of our lead producers indicated that we did our best to mute the audio of the chant during the Mexico match today but are at the limit of our ability as the chant comes through the commentator microphones.” Despite their acknowledgement of the potentially offensive nature of the chants, the chants remained audible on broadcasts from both networks.
Whereas the networks recognized that the chant was problematic but didn’t do anything about it, Mexico’s coach Miguel Herrera defended the Mexican fans, saying that the use of the word is “not that bad.” He told Associated Press “We’re with our fans. It’s something they do to pressure the opposing goalkeeper.”
This is what I want to tell Herrera: “You’re with your fans? How do you think condoning homophobia and the culture of machismo supports your fans? As a coach and a team, you support your fans by winning. You support your fans by doing everything in your power to make your games a safe environment for them. I can guarantee you have, or at least had, gay fans. I can guarantee you have fans with gay friends and relatives. It wouldn’t be that surprising if you have one or more gay players. Your defense of the chant “puto” is, rather than being with your fans, directly against all of those people. And you aren’t even with the fans who are doing the chanting. You are supporting their homophobia and machismo and that does not benefit anyone.”
Finally, FIFA decided not to punish Mexico because the chants were not offensive “in the specific context.” That is the argument most of the defenders of the chant have used. Which, as multiple journalists and bloggers have pointed out (read this and this for explanations), is wrong and very troubling to hear from an organization that is doing so much talking about how they are fighting discrimination.
The icing on the cake is that conditions for LGBT fans and players at the next two World Cups are going to be even worse. World Cup 2018 will be held in Russia and World Cup 2022 will be held in Qatar, two countries that have poor human rights records on LGBT issues. There is already talk of boycotting the World Cup in Russia and petitions asking FIFA to choose a different host country because of Russia’s bad track record on homosexual and race issues.
As so many of the other articles and blogs I have provided links to have said, it is time for soccer/football to catch up with the growing acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream culture. This World Cup has demonstrated that for all its talk, FIFA is not going to be a leader in that regard. So as usual, it is up to us, queer and allied fans and players, to start making our voices heard. There is room in the beautiful game for everyone.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.