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Inside FutbolInside Futbol

Specials

Inside History: Honduras and El Salvador’s Football War




Mark Sochon


It is often said that sport and politics should not mix, yet in football it is often not quite that simple. The world’s most passionately followed sport is popular because people love the game, but there is so much more to it than 22 players kicking a ball around for 90 minutes. Clubs are often defined by the region and social class they represent. For many across the planet, the team they support offers them an identity and match days the only chance to air perceived social injustices through the medium of sport. At an international level ancient grievances are stirred up by clashes between countries regarded as political foes such as England vs Argentina, Iran vs USA and South Korea vs North Korea. Football is often much more than a game and nowhere is this truer than in Latin America.

While violence is a fairly common theme and football related murders are not uncommon, the idea that events surrounding a football match could spark all-out war between two countries is, even by Latin American standards, something of a rarity. However, events surrounding three World Cup qualifiers in June 1969 triggered military clashes between Central American neighbours El Salvador and Honduras in what was to become known as the ‘Football War’.

 

The first game took place in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital on the 8th June 1969. The match was always going to be a lively affair with both countries in with a chance of qualifying for their first World Cup. There was trouble on the streets even before kick-off, and when Honduras scored the game’s only goal after ten minutes of injury time, the situation were always likely to escalate. Immediately after the referee blew his whistle an 18-year-old Salvadoran girl, Amelia Bolanos shot herself and as word spread she quickly became something of a martyr. Relations between the two countries were already strained and politicians in El Salvador used the incident to drum up nationalistic support by putting on a televised funeral for the girl, whose coffin was paraded through the streets, followed by the president and the El Salvador football team.

Needless to say, the welcome Honduras received when they arrived in San Salvador for the return clash a week later was not the warmest. There was even greater violence in the days surrounding the game leading to several deaths, while inside the stadium the Honduran flag and anthem where insulted while their black players were the subject of horrendous racial abuse. The result, a 3-0 El Salvador victory meant the sides would face a one-off decider to be played in Mexico City later in the month. Thousands made the long journey north to the Mexican capital, but this time most of the trouble was on the pitch. A fiercely contested game, which Honduras’s star player Enrique Cardona was effectively kicked out of, ended with a late winner from Mon Rodriguez, giving El Salvador a 3-2 win over their rivals who had twice equalised. While El Salvador went on to reach the 1970 World Cup, the real headlines were made when less than three weeks after the final meeting as war broke out between the two countries.

Without those fiercely contested battles on the pitch the military conflict would probably not have taken place, and to that extent the term ‘Football War’ is appropriate. However, the underlying causes of the conflict ran much deeper than just three controversial World Cup qualifiers which merely triggered subsequent events. Problems stemmed from the unbalanced demographics of a region where Honduras is five times the size of its neighbour, but El Salvador had double its population. Around 20% of Honduras was made up of Salvadoran immigrants, many of whom had illegally crossed the border to escape the overcrowding and poverty in their homeland. For Honduras, an equally poor country, it was a problem they could do without. They expelled or displaced as many as 300,000 immigrants and although Salvadoran government claims of genocide were a little wide of the mark, there is no doubt that physical force was used to deal with the problem. In truth the situation had been boiling up for all of the 1960s, starting with Honduran land reforms in 1962 which redistributed land owned by Salvadorans into Honduran hands. Both countries were eager to reach some kind of resolution and used the ensuing football matches as a tool to drum up a nationalistic fervour in support of what under normal circumstances would have, on the face of it, seemed a fairly pointless war.

At a time when all the talk was of the Cold War and nuclear missiles, this was a throwback to the early twentieth century, as two poor countries with basic military equipment took to the battlefield. After a decade of political bickering and a month of crazy nationalist passions inspired by football, the war was over almost before it had even begun. Just 100 hours after El Salvador bombed Honduras by using passenger jets to drop their missiles a ceasefire was agreed. A brief Salvadoran land invasion saw them take nine Honduran cities, but the campaign quickly reached a stalemate. It was in truth a bizarre episode of corrupt officials, hired mercenaries and pointless cruelty somewhat typical of Latin American politics in that era. Both countries were not exempt from blame, but luckily the realisation quickly dawned that neither really knew why they were fighting or what they hoped to gain. Regional pressure to end the spat grew quickly and resulted in the withdrawal of El Salvador’s troops in exchange for the guaranteed safety of Salvadorans living in Honduras.

 

Although the war was short and achieved little for either side, it was by no means without bloodshed and its consequences would roll on for decades to come. Over 3,000 people, the majority of whom were Honduran civilians, were killed in four days of bloodshed. Meanwhile most of the Salvadorans living in Honduras were left displaced having either fled to their homeland when fighting broke out or been expelled by the Tegucigalpa government. Their return only deepened trouble in El Salvador, a country that was unable to provide for the refugees, with most invariably ending up in extreme poverty; the true cost of the war therefore was much greater. Trade between the two bickering countries was greatly disrupted and this only led to greater economic hardship in a region which remains one of the world’s poorest to this day.

While relations between the two were naturally strained in the following years, ironically it was events on the football pitch which would help ease tensions. Ahead of the final game of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, Honduras had for the first time secured their place on football’s biggest stage. El Salvador meanwhile had played all their matches and their hopes were now dependent on a favour from the very country they had invaded little over a decade earlier. Cynics everywhere expected Honduras to roll over against a Mexican side that needed a win to reach the World Cup in Spain, but the Hondurans ground out a goalless draw meaning their great rivals would join them in Europe for the following summer’s tournament. While it created fewer headlines than the 1969 matches, the game showed once again how football can influence international politics, only this time for the better as the Honduran side were invited to San Salvador as an offer of gratitude.

While political situations often lead to heightened tensions at certain football matches, incidents where football has contributed to the breakout of a military conflict have been few and far between. The most recent example relates to a game in May 1990 between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in what was then the Yugoslav Football League. It took place shortly after the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989 which had contributed to unrest in Yugoslavia between Serbs and Croats. The game in Zagreb was attended by 3,000 Serbian fans and quickly descended into violent clashes in the stands before spilling out onto the pitch itself as home fans tried to reach the visiting sections. Most players headed for the changing rooms, but a few Dinamo players stayed on the pitch, including captain Zvonimir Boban, who infamously kicked a Yugoslav policeman at the height of the clashes. Boban instantly became a national hero in Croatia and the incident is regarded by many as the start of the Croatian War of Independence.

While in the Balkans Serb-Croat relations remain poor, El Salvador and Honduras have now very much put their differences behind them. There is still anger about the war, but it is largely aimed at the politicians who took advantage of the passion aroused by to increase nationalism rather than at the opposing nation’s people or football team. Even on the pitch things have swung around with Honduras now comfortably the stronger of the two sides with many players plying their trade in Europe. The 2010 World Cup qualifiers once again threw up two clashes between the countries in the final qualifying stage. Honduras striker Carlos Pavon scored the only goal in both matches, the second of which ensured his side’s qualification for the World Cup, a competition where neither country has ever won a match.

As the ‘Football War’ proves, football and politics will always be linked and the beautiful game can often be used as a tool to incite trouble at one end of the spectrum while bringing about positive social changes at the other. However, as the thousands who died in a pointless conflict found out to their cost, football is not more important than life and death.



Published: Sunday, 15th May 2011