Mexican Ricardo Canabal gave up playing football when he was 21, unable to reconcile his sexuality with what LGBT+ campaigners say is a deep-rooted homophobia in the sport.
Now 35, he has felt able to return to the game he loves, founding his own team of gay players in one of Mexico City’s amateur LGBT+ football leagues. Younger LGBT+ players, he says, have often had an easier time.
“(Playing on the team) fills me with satisfaction,” said Canabal. “It feels like something special … it’s something unique of its kind, that few countries or few cities have.”
It is a small sign of change in a country with a history of homophobia in football – something activists say reflects a broader societal issue in the conservative Catholic country, where anti-LGBT+ attitudes are widespread.
Mexico’s football authorities have stepped up attempts to tackle homophobia, under global scrutiny as the country prepares to host Olympic qualifiers in March.
But LGBT+ advocates say little will be achieved without more widespread efforts – both on and off the pitch.
Activist Enrique Torre Molina said there had been no comprehensive push within the sports community – teams, players, sports journalists and sponsors – to end homophobia.
“As long as there is no such effort, there will be no change,” the co-founder of LGBT+ networking group Colmena 41 told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via WhatsApp message.
“Activists and the LGBT+ community can insist, but it is up to them (football community) for people to stop doing it. They have more authority and influence.”
Mexico’s crackdown is part of a global push to stamp out homophobia in football, which is particularly prevalent in Latin America.
In the lead-up to the last World Cup in 2018, world governing body FIFA fined 16 countries for homophobia by fans in qualifying matches, 13 of which were in Latin America. Mexico received more sanctions than any other national side.
Fans are particularly associated with shouting “puto” – meaning male prostitute – when the opposing side takes a goal kick, a chant activist Torre Molina called “one of Mexico’s most shameful exports”.
“People use it as an insult because saying that a man is homosexual seems to them the worst possible offence,” he said.
In September, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) ordered referees to suspend games if fans shouted homophobic slurs.
One of Mexico’s top footballers, Jesus Gallardo, was handed a two-match suspension for doing so this month, days after the draw for the men’s Concacaf Olympic qualifying matches was announced in the city of Guadalajara.
And earlier this week the FMF announced that an upcoming local game would have to be played without spectators due to homophobic chanting.
But many gay fans feel that until society changes, penalties can only achieve so much.
“With sanctions, you can’t achieve anything to eradicate those kinds of attitudes,” said player Canabal. “Instead, you need a social change.”
There are, however, some recent signs that things may be changing.
Argentine goalkeeper, Nahuel Guzman, who plays for the Mexican team Tigres, caused a stir when he went onto the pitch this month with his hair dyed in the rainbow colours of the LGBT+ flag.
“The cases of homophobic discrimination are still present in our society and football is no exception,” Guzman wrote on Instagram, calling for greater understanding of “our enormous social diversity”.
Changes can also be seen in grassroots football.
Miguel Galindo, 22, grew up in one of Mexico City’s roughest neighbourhoods, Tepito, and is openly gay.
He is on a team of straight players, but in contrast to Canabal, his sexuality has not caused him any issues – he has even gone gay clubbing with his teammates.
“At the end of the day, the relationship you have with your teammates is what’s important,” he said. “And if they know who you are, if they’re really your friends, they won’t care.”
-Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib – Thomson Reuters Foundation