In 1969, the world witnessed what has come to be known today as the first “football war”. Following a qualifier match for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico between Honduras and El Salvador, a fleeting but remarkable conflict, with football rivalry at its heart, sprung into life. It was June 8th 1969 in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Fans were lining into the national stadium ahead of the first leg of qualifiers against El Salvador. The two teams were set to play in two legs to find out who will take on the winners of USA-Haiti for the final place in the World Cup. This was more than just a football however - The two Central American countries have a less than amicable relationship off the pitch. The US government had heavily invested in both countries, with El Salvador receiving significantly more capital than their Honduran counterparts leading to a rapid increase in births, which left many Salvadoran farmers unemployed. The poorer Honduras was in a position of richer and less inhabited lands, leading to what seemed like a perfect solution. In 1967, the two dictators Fidel Sanchez (El Salvador) and Oswald Lopez (Honduras) signed the “Convention of Bilateral Immigration”. Soon, nearly 300,000 Salvadorans crossed the border, establishing themselves as farmers in Honduras, unaware of the danger lurking around the corner. The Honduran “campesinos” did not willingly accept the arrival of the Salvadorans (given the conditions of poverty already gripping the country), and the tension all culminated in 1969. In an attempt to appease his local farmers without angering the American multinationals that were propping up his dictatorship, Oswald Lopez decreed the expulsion of the 300,000 Salvadorans living in Honduras. This was the political climate between the two countries ahead of their crucial qualifying legs for the World Cup. Tensions could not have been higher. The first leg was played on June 8th, and the Salvadoran players tried to stay in Honduras for as little time as possible. Throughout the night their hotel was pelted with stones, and the continuous hum of car horns. Despite playing a mentally exhausted El Salvador, Honduras only scored the winning goal of the first leg one minute from full time. In the meantime in El Salvador, the defeat was seen as absolutely devastating, causing Amelia Bolanos, the 18-year old daughter of a general, to kill herself. The young girl became viewed as a heroin, and was given a state funeral. The Salvadoran government did not to hesitate to use the occasion for propagandistic means. One week later, with the return leg in San Salvador, the situation got worse. Paper bombs, eggs and rocks were thrown at the Honduran players’ hotel window throughout the night, forcing them to seek refuge on the roof, awaiting the police’s arrival. They made the next day's trip from the hotel to the Estadio de la Flor in military tanks. Once the players finally made it into the ground, the Honduran national anthem was greeted by a plethora of whistling, as their national flag was burned in the Salvadoran home stand. In the end, the game was all too easy for the home side as a terrified Honduran team lost 3-0, while fighting in the stands left two away fans dead and dozens injured. At the time, goal difference was not a factor, so a final playoff was needed in the Azteca stadium in Mexico City. It was June 26 at this point, and the mix of tensions off the pitch combined with the dramatic performances on it turned the situation into a powder keg. Regular time ended 2-2, and in the 101’ minute Mauricio Rodriguez scored the winning goal, putting El Salvador through to the next round where they would eventually qualify for the World Cup after defeating Haiti. In Mexico City, however, the police failed miserably at preventing crown troubles, as the 5,000 police officers proved insufficient and incapable of preventing disorder within and around the stadium. It was a prelude to what would happen between July 14 and July 19, 1969. El Salvador attacked Honduras without warning, justifying the action as a necessary preventative defence of its national borders. The conflict would last 100 hours, killing 6,000 people and injuring another 50,000. The eventual cease-fire came after the Organisation of American States was able to negotiate a treaty which guaranteed the withdrawal of Salvadoran forces from Honduras in exchange for reparations made to farmers who had been displaced as a result of the conflict. Was all this really a consequence of a game of football? The truth is, football helped to strengthen the chauvinism and patriotic hysteria that is always needed to unleash a war and strengthen oligarchies. The two governments were satisfied with the war because for a few days Honduras and El Salvador made global headlines. The "Football War" will go down in history as one of the darker moments of the beautiful game. It is a reminder that football can also bring out the worst in us and our tribalistic nature. On this anniversary, we should remind ourselves of the original function of the game - as a teacher of respect, fair play and friendship.
The Football War: Honduras vs El Salvador, 1969