CONCACAF took on an unbeaten foe Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. And it got routed.
The ruling confederation for soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean used the opening-round games of its biennial Gold Cup tournament to launch the latest campaign intended to stamp out the offensive anti-gay slur Mexican fans have been chanting for more than a decade.
Instead the chant got louder.
"We never said we were going to do away with it tonight," said Brent Latham, CONCACAF's media operations chief. "We never said there wouldn't be a chant. We've just started working on it. Little by little."
CONCACAF characterized its approach, entitled the "Stadium We All Want," as an educational campaign designed to unite spectators, players, national team personnel and broadcasters in pursuit of "more welcoming stadium environment" — specifically one without the chant.
But in announcing the campaign, CONCACAF never specifically mentioned the chant. A low, guttural cry, the chant accompanies each goal kick by Mexico's opponents and begins with the crowd yelling "eeeeeeeehhh," stretching the sound out in unison, followed by an anti-gay slur when the keeper strikes the ball.
That word has long been used as an anti-gay slur in Mexico, although some fans and players have tried to dismiss the controversy, insisting the word has been misinterpreted and, at soccer games, its meaning is closer to "coward." CONCACAF isn't buying that — nor is FIFA, soccer's world governing body, which has fined the Mexican federation eight times for failing to get its fans to stop the chant.
Yet it has spread. During the World Cup qualifying cycle, FIFA said fans of a dozen nations, from Peru to Costa Rica, have used it. Chile, the reigning South American champion, has been fined $210,000 and prevented from playing four matches at its national stadium for failing to stop the chant.
Now CONCACAF has joined the fight, albeit in a subtle way.
Before every Gold Cup game the captains of each team will recite a pledge that calls on them to "set an example for our children" by not "us[ing] our voices to hurt, offend or discriminate." Fans are asked to repeat a similar pledge that will be posted on stadium scoreboards.
In addition, the CONCACAF broadcast feed of Gold Cup games will mask out the chant with generic game noise, preventing it from being heard outside the stadium. There were some hiccups in that process Sunday with the chant slipping past the censors at least once.
"The chant really is at the forefront in terms of issues we're addressing. And we're not afraid to say that," said CONCACAF General Secretary Philippe Moggio, who watched Mexico's 3-1 win over El Salvador on Sunday from a luxury suite at Qualcomm Stadium. "It's the No. 1 stadium issue we face."
Moggio said the campaign is aimed at teaching fans about the chant and how its use creates an uninviting environment for many. And it's an approach CONCACAF is committed to long-term.
"Changing this type of behavior takes a long time and a lot of effort," Moggio said. "So our focus really is on education and [persuading] fans that are not chanting this to chant something else so that whatever's offensive can be drowned out."
Much of that has been tried before, with little success. But one unique aspect of the CONCACAF approach is the recruitment of stakeholders such as sponsors, broadcasters and fans. Before Sunday's game CONCACAF reached out to Pancho Villa's Army, the largest organized Mexican supporters group in the U.S., and asked its members for support.
Sergio Tristan, an Austin, Texas, attorney and PVA's founder, said while the group is split over the chant's meaning, most members are simply weary of the controversy.
"It's a generational issue," said Tristan, who personally considers the chant offensive. "As younger generations become fans – and stadium fans – I think you'll see the disappearance of [the chant]. I just don't see it as being a big deal to the new generation. It's not something that's cultural to them.
"And frankly I think they're just tired of it. It's dumb. Nobody really cares any more. We just want to move on."
Nevertheless, the chant persists. Tristan blames that partly on the heavy-handed efforts of FIFA and others to penalize it, which has led some fans to fight back the only way they know how – by chanting.
"Some of them don't really care for the chant but they're not going to be told what to do by FIFA. So it's more of a defiance issue now than it really is a chant issue," said Tristan, who was in the crowd of 53,113 Sunday.
The CONCACAF campaign, Tristan notes, contains no penalties and bans no type of behavior. Instead it encourages alternatives and that's why he signed on to support it.
"We're not forcing them to do anything," he said before the match. "So we're going to come up with creative things to do in that space contrary to the chant."
That didn't work Sunday, when the chant grew louder as the game wore on. But while Latham, the CONCACAF spokesman, seemed dissatisfied as he watched the game's final minutes from the press box, Tristan was upbeat as he left the stadium.
"Can't change 50,000 fans in one day," he wrote in a text.