Panama game is big test for Mexico fans

Fans of El Tri will be under pressure to behave at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Fans of El Tri will be under pressure to behave at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday night. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

The Nations League match is the first for El Tri since FIFA imposed its stricter anti-discrimination rules.

Team Mexico hosts Panama in a Concacaf Nations League game on Tuesday night. It will be the first time Gerardo “Tata” Martino coaches El Tri in Estadio Azteca – Mexico’s home stadium – as 13 of his first 14 games in charge have been played abroad.

The game itself is not terribly attractive and the nascent Nations League tournament is not rated highly. But the match could have considerable impact on Mexico’s fortunes for what happens in the stands.

Mexico fans in spotlight over chant
Team Mexico fans have long had a reputation for being very supportive and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, now their reputation could be permanently tarnished. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

FIFA has recently launched a strict anti-discrimination campaign that seeks to eliminate offensive racist and homophobic chants from fans. Sanctions range from suspension of the match to teams getting stripped of points to expulsion from official tournaments.

Mexico and the Mexican Soccer Federation (FMF) are definitely in the spotlight because fans in Mexico have become notorious for shouting a homophobic chant when the opposing goalie takes a free kick. The “Ehhhh puto!” shout has been ricocheting around Mexico’s stadiums for more than a decade and it could prove costly to El Tri if it not stopped.

Over the past 5 years, the FMF has been fined by FIFA at least 14 times for a total exceeding 3 million dollars. The FMF took a laissez-faire approach from the outset, using arguments such as “it is a tradition” to “it is not offensive.” Both arguments are feeble. A tradition surely must date back more than 10 years and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (or CAS, located in Lausanne, France) ruled in April 2019 that the offending chant is indeed insulting and homophobic.

Mexico federation ignores problem

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The incantation made international headlines at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when FIFA sought to issue fines. The FMF appealed the decision, using both specious arguments mentioned above and FIFA backed down. The chant continued throughout Mexico’s appearances in Brazil and FIFA warned the FMF that it must take action. The FMF did nothing.

Since then, FIFA has begun imposing fines (up to $500,000 per game) when referees file reports after official matches (typically, World Cup qualifiers). The FMF willingly paid the fines instead of making any good faith effort to stop the chant. Appeals fell on deaf ears in Mexico and in the court of global public opinion. In Mexico, the national Anti-Discrimination Agency determined the chant was offensive.

FIFA warned that it would increase sanctions, punishing the team instead of simply levying fines and the FMF made a very meek effort (a few promotional videos) to show it was complying. Though the chants continued, even very audible at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA did little more than fine Mexico.

Mexico fans in spotlight over chant
Fans of El Tri could be banned from home games if the offensive chant is not eliminated. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images) /

At the same time, in Europe and elsewhere, racist insults became more prevalent. FIFA decided to take a stand and issued its new rules. Now, a referee can take action on the field. If offensive chants are heard, the ref can stop the game for 5 minutes and the PA system will make an announcement. If the chants continue, the game can be stopped for 15 minutes with the teams being sent to the locker rooms and a PA announcement is made again. If the chants continue after play resumes, the game is stopped and the home team is forced to play its next home game in an empty stadium.

At the administrative level, punishments begin with fines. But since Mexico is already considered a repeat offender, the next punitive measure is a stadium veto and/or playing in an empty stadium. The penalties increase thereafter, from a loss of points, to a forfeit to expulsion from the tournament.

As such, Salvadoran referee Iván Arcides Barton will be the center of attention Tuesday night. If the “Ehhh puto!” chant is heard, he could take action, particularly if Panama complains.

“Tata” Martino’s Estadio Azteca debut could prove to be a bitter experience if El Tri supporters disregard the recent public pronouncements by the FMF pleading with fans to behave.