Ahead of Mexico match, U.S. Soccer's efforts to combat an anti-gay chant will be put to the test

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Wednesday, April 19, 2023
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On Wednesday, the longtime soccer rivalry between the U.S. men's national team and Mexico will begin a new chapter. For the first time in match involving these two teams, a U.S. Soccer Federation policy that bans discriminatory chanting will be in effect. When the game at StateFarm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, kicks off, it will then be revealed just how serious the USSF is about rooting out an ugly aspect that has long stained the rivalry.

At issue has been the anti-gay slur in Spanish that fans yell at games when there is an opposition goal kick. That slur is a vulgar insult that is considered offensive toward the LGBTQIA+ community. Since the 2014 World Cup, the Mexican football federation (FMF) -- which oversees the country's national teams -- has been repeatedly fined by FIFA due to the chant's prevalence at Mexico matches.

The FMF -- with the help of its own players -- has repeatedly made public service announcements to stamp out the chant, but it still continues to be heard. Last January, FIFA fined FMF $108,000 for chanting heard at the 2022 World Cup during El Tri's games against Saudi Arabia and Poland. FIFA also previously forced Mexico to play a World Cup qualifier in Sept. 2021 against Jamaica without fans as punishment for its failure to stem the chant.

The Mexican national team has long been a huge draw in the U.S., often playing to near-capacity crowds in NFL stadiums. As such, it's common to hear the chant at El Tri matches held stateside. Now U.S. Soccer's policy, approved by the USSF board in May 2022, will be the latest attempt to thwart it.

The measure was pushed forward by board member John Collins, who said his motivation was simple.

"We wanted to take leadership on this issue, and lead the world on this," Collins told ESPN in reference to the issue of discriminatory chanting. "We wanted to do the right thing. At some point, people have to put principles over profit."

The policy, which is specifically geared toward international matches played in the U.S. and doesn't apply to domestic league games, prohibits "any derogatory chant relative to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and/or gender, or other chant deemed to otherwise violate the human rights of any participant or spectator at the match."

And what could be the penalty for a team if its fans engage in the chant? That team will not be permitted to play an international match in the United States for a period of two years. A second violation shall result in a five-year ban from playing an international match in the United States. A third violation shall result in a permanent ban. A similar ban, as well as forfeiture of a performance bond, is issued to third-party match promoters if it is deemed that they didn't do enough to prevent discriminatory chanting.

WCup Mexico Poland Soccer
Mexican fans attend the World Cup group C soccer match between Mexico and Poland, at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.
AP Photo/Moises Castillo

The policy also allows fans to file an expedited grievance, which would go to arbitration, with U.S. Soccer if they can demonstrate the occurrences of the chant at any game.

Would U.S. Soccer enforce its own rule?

Ahead of Wednesday's match, there had been debate within USSF circles about whether the policy actually applied in this instance. As recently as last weekend, one viewpoint was that it only was meant for matches put on by third-party promoters.

After a series of internal discussions following ESPN's request for clarification, it was decided that the policy did indeed apply for this match, leading to a new statement on Monday.

"U.S. Soccer takes the issue of discriminatory behavior seriously and strictly prohibits any derogatory chant," the federation said on Monday. "We are following and will fully enforce Policy 521-2 at this and in all future matches. With FMF and (Soccer United Marketing), we have worked proactively to prevent any discriminatory chant at our upcoming match by communicating the Fan Code of Conduct to attendees before the event and will continue that communication in-venue."

In a statement to ESPN on Tuesday, FMF said: "We are aware of USSF's policy regarding discriminatory conduct at international matches. FMF has zero tolerance for discriminatory, offensive, or other abusive conduct. For more than five years, FMF has been working both in Mexico and the U.S. to eradicate discriminatory conduct at soccer matches through proactive fan messaging prior to matches, as well as extensive in-game efforts.

Argentines and fans of their soccer team's star Lionel Messi celebrated the nation's World Cup title throughout Southern California.

"These efforts included educational videos, direct emails, stadium announcements, stadium signage, and social media campaign(s). For all our matches, FMF also works closely with game officials and local law enforcement to implement FIFA/CONCACAF's three-step protocol.

As part of FMF's continued commitment to educate fans and eliminate discriminatory conduct from stadiums throughout North America, we will continue to coordinate closely with U.S. Soccer to ensure matches are a safe space for all fans."

Wednesday's game is being promoted by the USSF itself, which is key because it puts responsibility of enforcing the policy -- including any potential ban decision -- solely on the federation.

That also leads to the biggest question heading into the match: Would the USSF dare to invoke the nuclear option as it relates to the chant if it is heard on Wednesday, and ban Mexico from playing matches in the U.S. for two years?

On closer read, there are two glaring loopholes. One source at USSF contends that so long as their Mexican counterparts make a good faith effort to minimize odds of the chant happening, there won't be sanctions.

Equally, it's not clear what line actually has to be crossed -- whether it's one instance of the chant or a full stoppage of play -- for a ban to be considered. One USSF source said that it was "TBD" what would trigger a two-year ban.

It's similar to a league saying it wants to minimize violent conduct on the field and never issuing a red card to players when such fouls occur.

What happens if the chant is heard?

Now that it has explicitly stated that it will enforce the policy for Wednesday's game, the USSF laid out how it intends to combat the chant. A USSF spokesperson provided ESPN with its Anti-Discrimination Protocol Plan, done in conjunction with the FMF and SUM, one that includes a list of preemptive steps it will take to minimize the odds of the chant occurring, including messages to fans via video boards and over the stadium PA system.

The game will also enforce the USSF Code of Conduct and FIFA's three-step protocol in the regard to the chant. The latter -- which has been used for several years with mixed results -- details that fans will hear a warning to cease the discriminatory chant as a first step, followed by suspension of play for two minutes if chanting continues and finally, as a third step, the match will be abandoned if chanting does not cease.

No match has ever reached that third step for it to be abandoned under that protocol. In previous cases, match officials have enforced the first two steps of the protocol, without having to invoke the ultimate sanction of abandoning the match.

But with this new USSF policy, it raises the stakes in terms of possible penalties should the chant be heard.

Once a 'cash cow,' are these U.S.-Mexico games worth it?

Since Wednesday's game falls outside of the FIFA international window, the two rosters are mainly composed of young players and reserves from their respective domestic leagues (Liga MX and MLS), and feature only a handful of the players that starred at the 2022 World Cup. Therefore, the value of this game lies mainly at filling up the stands.

An argument that could be made -- albeit a cynical one -- is that there is too much money at stake from matches with Mexico for the USSF to ban them for an extended period. Both countries are set to co-host the 2026 World Cup alongside Canada, so Mexico doesn't have to play a qualifying match in the U.S. for some time. On whether Mexico's qualifier vs. the USMNT during the 2030 World Cup cycle could be affected, a source at USSF said that would be "an open question."

Then there is also the continued cozy relationship between the two countries' federations, as well the continuing partnership between Liga MX and MLS. Soccer United Marketing, the entity controlled by MLS that has also worked with Mexico, is no longer promoting USMNT games. According to multiple sources, that has changed the negotiating dynamic for matches between the two rivals.

Mexico's popularity in the U.S. is such that it draws bigger crowds for their matches, but the games between the two sides "used to be a cash cow. Not anymore," said one USSF source who asked not to be identified.

"We're very unhappy with the economics of this game. There's been a lot of inflation in the appearance fee (for Mexico's participation)," the source added.

The U.S.-Mexico rivalry remains the most potent in the region, with the kind of ebbs and flows that allow it to transcend generations. The hope of course is that it continues without the chant. But it'll mean nothing if there isn't any enforcement by U.S. Soccer of its own rules.