Puto Is The Trump Of Chants

Like everyone else, the people of Mexico must be wondering how America, once the land of the free and the home of the brave, could have let such an emotionally and intellectually stunted bigot into the White House. Though, in fairness, they are probably more concerned with the man’s overt nationalism and well-documented xenophobia than with exactly how or why America lost its way.

Which left me wondering, as I watched the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup soccer tournament, how a people insulted and outraged by the words and actions of El Trumpo can so proudly scream “puto” every chance they get on the world’s stage…the fútbol arena. After all, barking out a homophobic insult is the kind of thing you would expect from a guy like Trump, not the reasonable and loving people of Mexico.

Sports Fan Behavior
For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, let me explain. There is a certain school of thought among sports fans that if you shout something the moment an athlete is about to take an action, then you might be able to influence that action. I guess the idea is that a loud, sudden noise from the crowd might startle the player and cause them to falter. Although it is worth noting that you rarely see such behavior in sports traditionally favored by the elites, such as golf and tennis, where it might actually have some impact, while it has become quite common in traditionally working-class sports.

In soccer, which is the quintessential working-man’s sport everywhere around the world (except, perhaps, here in the United States), this scream-to-startle phenomenon typically occurs during a goal kick, arguably one of the game’s most low-risk moments (though some keepers have done their best to challenge that categorization). And with American fans, it will occasionally take the form of a deep build-up – “ooooooohhhhh” – bursting into a loud cheer – “HEEYYY” – when the keeper kicks the ball. This particular fan ritual originated during kickoffs in American football. And, especially with the long build-up, it is more of a celebration of play getting underway than an attempt to startle the player, in hopes of influencing the game.

A Fool’s Errand
For what it’s worth, I can’t recall this tactic – shouting or cheering something to startle or distract a goalkeeper (or any other player, for that matter) – ever having any discernible effect on a soccer game, here or abroad. For starters, you can’t be startled when you expect it. And even if the keeper were somehow caught off-guard by a sudden burst of noise, flubbing a goal kick isn’t nearly as bad as botching something like a penalty kick.

Frankly, it all seems quite silly to me. The behavior has become commonplace despite having no noticeable impact. But I guess fans want to pretend that they can have some sort of direct influence on the game, like they are helping to contribute to their team’s victory (though I have never seen a fan accepting a similar level of responsibility for their team’s defeat).

Mexican Fans
Mexican fans already have a history of some of the worst behavior at sporting events. Yes, folks, they invented “the wave.” Or at least they claim to have, at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, though there’s evidence that it has deeper routes in the National Hockey League, and may have first appeared in soccer at the 1984 Olympic final in Los Angeles. I have never understood this behavior, and laying claim to its origin makes about as much sense to me as claiming that you invented herpes.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. You go to a game to see the game, right? But that’s kind of hard to do when the portly guy in front of you periodically leaps to his feet and throws his hands in the air, creating a “wave” of fans doing the exact same thing in a “wave” that “travels” around the stadium. Forget the fact that Chicharito is in on goal…these clowns would rather do calisthenics than watch their team play.

Sure, people will argue that it’s all part of the spectacle – that things like the wave energize the fans, and the players. But shouldn’t the game, or one’s love of the game, be enough to energize the fans, and the players? It would have to be a really boring game for me to seek ways to amuse myself and others. If you want a wave, go to an amusement park. Or, better yet, try the ocean. I hear they are really big there.

The Puto Chant
The wave aside, Mexican soccer fans have set another precedent for bad behavior. They are responsible for the aforementioned scourge known as the “puto” chant. And it’s not really a chant, but rather a word they scream whenever the opposing goalkeeper takes a goal kick. I’ll deal with the meaning, and the various attempts to defend the term, in a moment, but suffice it to say that it is considered – and largely intended – to be a homophobic insult.

In fairness, this doesn’t compare with the overt ugliness and violence you often find at games in certain European, South American, and Central American countries. But much of that comes from extremist groups who have latched on to a specific club or national team as a means of identity. And you can usually trace their bad behavior back to racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and general bigotry within their respective societies. Also, it tends to be a relatively small number of people who are openly expressing such things in and around the stadiums, whereas screaming “puto” is far more widespread phenomenon – often even a family activity.

The screaming of this word has become so rampant among Mexican soccer fans that FIFA has sanctioned the Mexican Federation for it, more than five times. Of course, being FIFA, these fines are nothing more than a slap on the proverbial wrist, designed to do nothing other than help FIFA retain an image long-since destroyed by its own horrific behavior. And yet this disgusting practice continues. It has also spread to other Spanish-speaking fan groups, and even to some gringo wannabes in Major League Soccer.

For it’s part, the Mexican Football Federation (which governs Mexico’s league and national team) has threatened to physically remove their fans who scream the word during matches played by the Mexican national team. And officials in Russia, where Mexico is currently playing in FIFA’s Confederation Cup, have promised to place monitors in the crowd to help identify fans engaging in racism and other offensive behavior  – including the puto chant. Yet Mexican fans clearly engaged in such behavior during their team’s opening match, and FIFA, the Mexican Federation, and the Russians (who are not exactly known for their tolerant behavior, especially when it comes to homosexuality) did nothing about it.

Fortunately, thanks to public pressure, some action was taken in subsequent games, with rumors of a few fan being ejected for the chant (unfounded rumors, it seems, but that was apparently enough to deter the behavior). As a result, Mexican fans seem to have dialed it down a bit, at least for the time being. Hopefully this is the beginning of the end for this ugly, childish behavior, but the real test will come next month, during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which also features the Mexican national team – and their fans.

So What Does Puto Actually Mean?
Getting an accurate translation of puto depends on who you ask. In Mexico, and many Spanish-speaking countries, “puta” is slang for a female prostitute. And puto, in the masculine form, technically refers to a male prostitute. But we’re not talking about a gigolo here. It’s meant to refer to the kind of working stiff that George Michael used to frequently enjoy brief, intimate, paid encounters with in public restroom stalls. To put it in Trumpian terms, it’s kind of like calling someone a “fag for hire.” Definitely a slur.

Puto apologists will make a number of different arguments, as the guilty often do, trying to rationalize their inappropriate behavior. First, they will tell you that it’s not an insult. That it simply refers to a male prostitute. OK, then, is calling someone a whore not an insult? And why are you calling an opposition player a male prostitute, if it’s not meant to insult them in some sort of fashion?

After that fails to hold its ground, they tend to fall back to the argument that the use of the word is commonplace in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking cultures. They will claim that it has become the equivalent of how we use “fucker” here in America, as in “That Fucker!” Which is funny, because now the argument concedes that it is obscene, and an insult, but not necessarily homophobic. After all, anyone can be a fucker. Even you, you fucking fucker!

Others will argue that when they use the word in the context of a sporting event, it means “coward.” And I guess if you are a self-delusional homophobe, you might argue that when you call someone a “fag” that you only really mean that they are a “coward” – which, of course, doubles-down on the insult because you are now implying that someone who engages in homosexual activities is also a coward. But if you truly mean to say coward, then why not just say “cobarde” – coward? Or, if you feel the need to add a little edge, I understand that “pendejo” works just as well, without implying any homophobic undertones. But they don’t use those other words, do they?

It’s like someone trying to defend an expression like “carpet muncher.” That phrase is clearly intended to refer to lesbians in a demeaning manner (though, given modern trends in personal grooming, it hardly seems appropriate these days). Sure, you could say that you are talking about someone who chews on carpeting as some bizarre form of flossing their teeth, but no one is going to believe such nonsense. That’s the kind of half-ass duplicity that has become a staple of the Trump administration.

Others will concede that it is a slur and try to defend it by saying that there are worse things that could be said. The Colombian who manages the Mexican National Team, Juan Carlos Osorio, has offered this lame, hollow excuse. It’s kind of like saying, sure, we threw a bucket of urine on their player, but at least it wasn’t feces.

Despite all these arguments, puto is meant as an insult. And given its cultural context, that insult is meant to be demeaning to both gay men and prostitutes. Which is not only wrong, but totally unnecessary.

Mexican Trumps
The puto chant is also demeaning and insulting to Mexicans, painting them as a homophobic and intolerant people. And it has become a national embarrassment, much like the tweets of Donald Trump.

Is “puto” the best that these fans can come up with? Is that the limit of their creativity? I know that’s how El Trumpo behaves, but aren’t you supposed to be better than that? And what of other fans – Americans and other nationalities – who have eagerly taken up the practice? It’s like a bunch of 13-year-old boys who just learned a dirty word in Spanish and think that saying it is absolutely hysterical.

Look, I have shouted some crazy stuff at soccer games. From “chicken bucket” to “you fucking Philistines,” I am not shy about barking out obscenity-laden rants at the officials, the opposition, and even some of my team’s more slack players. But I never cross the line into ethnic, racial, or sexual slurs. Why would I? It’s a game, after all, and we’re all supposed to be having fun, right? And if I do feel the need to vent my frustration, I would rather do so in a manner that might make someone laugh – not feel insulted, demeaned, oppressed, or threatened.

Hacerse maduro, amigos. Grow up, my friends. Otherwise, you are no better than Trump. And I believe you are.

The Jingos of Major League Soccer

MLSup14This Sunday will feature the 19th MLS Cup, which is Major League Soccer’s (MLS) version of the season-end championship game. The New England Revolution, who finished in fifth-place overall, will face the team who finished second, the LA Galaxy, who eliminated the team that topped the table, the Seattle Sounders, in the playoffs.

In most soccer (football) leagues, the team with the best record over the course of the season is crowned the champion. In MLS, that team is awarded the Supporters Shield, a largely secondary honor. Which leaves one wondering why the team that performed the best throughout the season doesn’t receive all the glory? Why is there a perceived need for post-season play?

MLSogoEverybody’s A Winner In MLS
Part of the reason has to do with American culture. Most of our sports have a post-season, leading up to a championship game (or games). Apparently being consistently the best isn’t as important to American audiences. You simply need to be the best once, on a specific day.

Of course, the real reason behind post-season play is the money. More fans will tune-in to see presumably the best of the best compete. It’s a chance to sell more ad space and at higher rates, just as it is a chance to sell more game tickets and at higher prices.

Though MLS has an additional reason for its post-season play. Unlike most other soccer leagues, it doesn’t have relegation and promotion. In other words, the teams who performed the worst in a particular season do not get sent down to a second-tier league for the following season, with the best teams from that second-tier league getting promoted to replace them.

One of the benefits of relegation is that it ensures that the games played by teams no longer vying for the title – those in the bottom half of the standings – remain meaningful through until the end of the season. These teams may no longer be in the running for the title, or even post-season play, but theoretically their fans will remain interested because they are still battling for something: to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

In an effort to keep the fans of all but the worst MLS teams engaged through to the end of the season without the benefit of relegation, the league’s 10 best teams get to compete in post-season play for the MLS Cup. And that’s where things get really silly, because it’s actually harder not to qualify for this post-season knockout tournament than it is to qualify. The league only has 19 teams, so the majority of them get to advance, including one club that had 14 wins and 13 losses this season – hardly a record worthy of a post-season berth. Next season, when the league expands to 20 teams, the plan is to have 12 qualify for post-season play, creating a likely scenario in which teams with losing records make the playoffs.

The MLS “Right or Wrong” Mindset
I can overlook the unfortunate fact that the MLS Cup dilutes the importance of regular season play by allowing the majority of teams to participate in a post-season competition that is viewed as the ultimate prize. Without relegation, it’s understandable.

What I find harder to stomach is the delusional, jingoistic fervor of so many MLS fans (and even a few league officials) that clouds the league’s genuine improvements on the field with a sickening, fecal stench. Like some neo-nationalist ideologue on Fox News, they adamantly argue that MLS is one of the best leagues in the world. And anyone who dares to question let alone dispute that assertion is viewed as a traitor by them, branded a “Euro snob” or simply accused of not being a “real” or “true” fan.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I will say that I am indeed an American, and I have been playing soccer since the early 70s. I have, on occasion, coached, refereed, and even written about the game. And I recently started playing regularly again (albeit far more slowly). Yes, I grew up watching European soccer on TV. But I also became a fan of the NASL, back when that league was the top tier in America.

I tried to follow MLS when it first launched but, as a soccer fan, I found the product utterly unwatchable. Since returning from South Africa in 2010, I gave the league another look and have been watching it more regularly. I even bought a partial season ticket plan for my nearest club. MLS has vastly improved since its inception. And while it is more entertaining, it’s still nowhere near the level of Europe’s top leagues (England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, for example) in terms of the quality.

Also, let me be clear that this criticism certainly doesn’t apply to all MLS fans. The league has some amazing fans. In fact, I’d categorize Portland’s fans as among the best in the world.

US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. (image source: ussoccer.com).

But too many MLS fans consider it heresy to question the quality of the league. And their brazenly chauvinistic accusations and outright contempt made headlines when US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann dared to offer an honest assessment of the league earlier this year, encouraging America’s best players to strive for Europe’s leagues because they are more competitive than MLS. Klinsmann has been tasked with developing America’s best talent to compete with the best the world has to offer, and the best the world has to offer play primarily in the top European leagues – not MLS.

Many MLS fans don’t want to hear any of this. Again, like a Fox News pundit, they simply ignore any facts that don’t support their ideological conclusion. In fact, if you ask these fans for evidence as to why MLS is such a great league, the answer I always get is because it’s one of the most “competitive” leagues in the world. But is there any truth to that claim? And does being competitive have anything to do with being among the best?

Competitive Against Who?
Unfortunately for these myopic MLS supporters, the claim that the league is “competitive” is a fallacy. The teams in MLS are not competitive with the teams in other leagues. They may be competitive amongst themselves, but that’s rather meaningless. It’s like saying Hyundai produces the best cars in the world simply because all of their models are of similar quality. The real test is how their cars perform against those made by other manufacturers, just as the real test of MLS is how its clubs fare against those from other leagues.

CClogoAnd there is sufficient evidence that MLS does poorly, and consistently poorly, when faced with teams from other leagues in North America, let alone against those in the best leagues in the world. Friendlies are largely meaningless, since they’re not competitive fixtures. There’s no incentive to win and most sides field an experimental squad instead of their first team. So the best test of how MLS clubs compare to those in other leagues is the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), a tournament in which the best club teams from each league in North America compete to be crowned regional champions.

However, American clubs have consistently failed to perform well in this competition. Soon after MLS was formed, its clubs had a good showing (when the tournament was still called the Champions Cup) with the LA Galaxy finishing second in 1997, winning it in 2000, and DC United taking the title in 1998. But since then, though, an MLS clubs have not fared well, with the lone exception of Real Salt Lake finishing second in 2011.

In fact, if you look at the 17 CCL tournaments in which MLS clubs have competed, they’ve only won two championships – less than 12 percent. Of the 34 opportunities to play in the final, MLS clubs have only shown up four times – also less than 12 percent. And even if you look at who made the 68 semi-final berths in the MLS era, which is something a “good” let alone “great” league ought to be able to achieve on a consistent basis, its teams only account for 26 percent of them.

If you look at the results of this regional competition, the clubs in Mexico are by far better than those in MLS (despite having the same number of seeded teams). And no Mexican fan would dream of comparing their league to the top ones in Europe. In fact, if you look at CCL performance, MLS is more on par with the Costa Rican league than those in Europe.

Since the creation of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2000, no MLS team has won the CCL, so they haven’t earned an opportunity to compete against the best teams from each of the other regional confederations. However, the CCL winners – teams proven to be better than the best in MLS that season – have never made it to the finals of the Club World Cup. In the 10 competitions to date, the best the CCL champions have been able to achieve is three third-place finishes and three fourth-place finishes. Which is proof that even these clubs (from the Mexican and Costa Rican leagues) aren’t as competitive as those from Europe and South America.

Don’t Bury Your Head – or Talent – in the Sand
Jurgen Klinsmann is right, in that American players need to challenge themselves by playing against the best players in the world – the vast majority of whom play in Europe’s top leagues. In the same way, MLS needs to stop comparing its clubs with one another and focus instead on how they perform against clubs from other leagues. That kind of open, honest assessment is the only way the game will move forward in this country.

To claim MLS is great because its teams are so competitive with one another, meaning no one is really any better or worse than anyone else (the league was designed that way, so that no one team can ever dominate), is like claiming that a boxing match between two armless men is competitive. Technically they are competitive with one another, just like Hyundai’s cars. But neither boxer would fare well against other title contenders. Nor would the bout between the armless duo make for very good entertainment, at least not for a boxing fan. Just as MLS, while vastly improved from its inaugural season, is still well short of the mark when it comes to competing with the world’s top leagues.