FIFA fines for homophobic abuse are just a reflection of a deeper problem in South American soccer

The recent news that FIFA is to punish six Latin American federations for homophobic chanting by fans will not come as a huge surprise to anyone who has spent much time watching soccer in the region.

All of the incidents came during recent CONCACAF and CONMEBOL qualifying matches, with Chile, which was fined around $69,000, receiving the heaviest punishment for homophobic abuse at all four of its matches. Argentina, Honduras, Peru, Mexico, and Uruguay were also penalized.

“FIFA has been fighting discrimination in football for many years and one part of that has been through sanctions,” said Claudio Sulser, chairman of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee. “But disciplinary proceedings alone cannot change behavior by certain groups of fans that unfortunately goes against the core values of our game.”

And FIFA may have an uphill struggle in the battle against homophobic songs in Latin America, where cultural factors mean such chanting is often not seen as offensive. That was certainly the case during the 2014 World Cup, when Mexico supporters hit the headlines for yelling “puto!” (which roughly translates as “gay prostitute”) every time Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César took a goal kick during a group stage game. Not to be outdone, local fans returned the favor whenever Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa touched the ball.

FIFA decided not to fine either federation on that occasion, apparently deciding that the word was not offensive. Discrimination watchdog Fare disagreed, declaring that “if the decision is that the use of the word ‘puto’ is not homophobic then this is disappointing, and contradicts the expert advice of the Mexican government’s own anti-discrimination body…and numerous other experts.”

A number of cultural and linguistic commentators, meanwhile, argued that the word did not have the offensive weight of other Mexican homophobic slurs such as maricón, which is closer to the English “faggot.”

Either way, the World Cup chanting, as this month’s FIFA action shows, was merely a reflection of a wider, more ingrained culture of homophobia and discrimination masquerading as terrace banter in the region.

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 29:  Mexico fans cheer during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Netherlands and Mexico at Castelao on June 29, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Unsavory chants rang out in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match between the Netherlands and Mexico in Fortaleza, Brazil.

A few months before the Mexico v Brazil game, São Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni was met with a barrage of “bicha” (again, similar to “faggot”) shouts every time he touched the ball in the clássico against bitter local rivals Corinthians. Although a São Paulo gay and lesbian rights group brought charges against Corinthians at the TJD-SP, the local sports disciplinary body, the case was eventually dropped, with the organ’s president Mauro Marcelo de Lima e Silva cheerily describing the abuse as “simple collective euphoria motivated by the tension of the game.”

At the same time, a number of Brazilian clubs are known by insulting nicknames tinged with homophobic slurs or suggestions of femininity. São Paulo, for example, is referred to as “Bambis,” a play on words based on the similarity between a derogatory word for homosexual and that meaning a baby deer. Atlético Mineiro fans call their Cruzeiro rivals the “Marias,” while Náutico, from the northeastern city of Recife, is insultingly known as the “Barbies.”

Such dubious fun and games continue in other parts of the continent. “River fans might sing “mirá, mirá, mirá, sacá una foto, se va para La Boca con el culo roto” (a song about presumably undesired anal penetration) after a win over Boca,” explains Argentinian football expert Sam Kelly. “Apart from that it’s what’s seen as fairly garden variety homophobia, stuff like calling people putos.”

All harmless fun, users of such terms would argue, and to an extent they’re arguably right. After all, we can probably assume that the goal of many of the chanting fans is not to express hatred of homosexuals, or to seriously imply that all the players and supporters of the opposition are gay, but instead that they are: (a) not very good at soccer, (b) not as tough and manly as the chanters, and (c) a bit shit in a general sense. In other words, the idea is to goad, irritate, and needle through insults of any kind, and in Latin America societies, there’s often no greater insult for a man than being called gay.

Such a defense, however, misses the point. For by using derogatory words for homosexuals as insults, the chants are maintaining and adding to a prejudice that, fueled by the kind of meat-headed machismo that can be rife in such countries, has a darker side.

Flamboyant Flamengo striker Emerson Sheik, perhaps best known for owning a pet monkey called Cuta, was the target of vicious abuse last year after posting a photograph featuring him kissing a male friend on the lips on social media. A court even fined one torcida organizada (organized supporter’s clubs that often have a reputation for crowd violence) around $5,000 after they protested outside the training ground of his then club Corinthians with “this is a place for men,” and “viado não” (“no faggots”) banners.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 23: Emerson Sheik of Flamengo during the Brasileirao Series A 2015 match between Flamengo and Sao Paulo at Maracana Stadium on August 23, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Bruna Prado/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  Emerson SheikBruna Prado/Getty Images

Emerson Sheik doesn't have time for this nonsense.

In a similar vein, when Palmeiras considered signing former São Paulo midfielder Richarlyson, a player whose sexuality has long been a theme for debate among fans who care about such things, in 2012, organizada members protested outside the club academy with a banner reading “homophobia wears green” (the Palmeiras colors).

In wider society, such prejudice can have far more tragic consequences. According to the Grupo Gay da Bahia, a gay rights group, there were 326 homophobia related murders in Brazil in 2014. “Brazil is the world champion in homophobic crimes,” said Luiz Mott, the anthropologist behind the study.

At the same time, many in positions of authority, both inside and outside soccer, egg on the culture of homophobia. Bogota-based football writer Carl Worswick describes one example in Colombia in 2012. “Following an incident in which referee Óscar Julián Ruiz was accused of sexual harassment by another referee, the head of Colombia’s amateur football association and a senior figure in the country’s soccer, Alvaro Gonzalez, declared that ‘to my way of thinking, I can state that homosexuality is a very contagious illness … and one of the main requirements of being a referee in Colombia is to be gay.’”

In Brazilian politics, meanwhile, the speaker of the country’s lower house, Eduardo Cunha, is campaigning for the installation of a “heterosexual pride day” in response to what he sees as a growing “gay ideology” in Brazilian society. Last year, during a televised debate in the presidential election race, numbskull marginal candidate Levy Fidelix made a not-so-thinly veiled attack on homosexuality, stating that “you don’t make babies through your excretory equipment.”

Brazilian politicians, thankfully, are not known for being in touch with wider society, and despite the “bicha” goal kick chants catching on among unthinking fans, some shoots of hope are beginning to appear.

After the Rogério Ceni abuse, Corinthians issued a statement calling for the end to the “bicha” shout, referring to the club’s roots in fighting against social elitism and racism, and alluding to the famous Socrates-led “Democracia Corinthiana,” when players installed a democratic decision-making process at the club in the midst of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

“Here we fight to the end because we are all equal. And here there is not, and cannot be, homophobia. Let’s bring an end to the ‘bicha’ when the opposition keeper takes a goal kick. Because homophobia, as well as going against the principles of equality that are part of Corinthians’ DNA, can harm the Timão (“Big Team”). This is Corinthians,” read part of the statement.

Gay torcidas organizadas have also emerged, ranging from Grêmio’s pioneering Coligay group in the 1970s, to Atlético Mineiro’s Galo Queer, who defend not only gay but also women’s rights within soccer.

The reception such groups have received, or would receive were they to reveal themselves at matches, shows that there is a long way still to go. “They say if you show yourselves at the match, you’re going to die. If you go to the stadium, you’re going to get a beating. Lots of them were ordinary fans, but some were members of the (main, non-gay) organizada. It’s a very difficult situation, everyone is afraid,” one of the members of Galo Queer told the Brazilian media.

Further encouragement can perhaps be taken from Brazilian soccer’s recent struggles with racism. From a group of Grêmio fans making monkey noises at Santos goalkeeper Aranha, to the bananas placed on the car of black referee Marcio Chagas de Silva during a state championship game, racist behavior has rarely been out of the spotlight in the last couple of years.

While such abuse is obviously to be condemned, the fact that it is making the headlines at all should perhaps be celebrated, for not long ago calling a black footballer macaco (“monkey”), or using similar racial epithets, would barely have raised eyebrows in South America – witness Luis Suarez’s bemused, confused reaction to the Patrice Evra affair.

Now, while still a long way from being eradicated, racist abuse at a soccer stadiums is likely to be roundly condemned in many parts of the continent. Hopefully, it isn’t too long before the “bicha” chants and their like are given the same treatment.