Poetic Licence: The soccer war revisited
With Salvador and Honduras having won one game apiece, there were no illusions about what was going to happen when they met in Mexico City for the final confrontation. Media in both countries screamed for blood. The final meeting promised to be a soccer game the like of which hadn’t been seen
Defending champion France’s shock at being knocked out of the World Cup in the first round on Tuesday after losing 2-0 to Denmark, Argentina’s tears after it lost 1-0 to hated archrival England last Friday, and the rioting by angry fans in Moscow last week after the Russian team crashed to a first round defeat, were all as nothing compared to what happened during the 1969 World Cup when Honduras and El Salvador went to war. The conflict, that came to be known as the “Soccer War,” left 3,000 dead, 6,000 wounded and caused $50 million in damage ($2 billion in today’s money).
The war was caused by a number of issues, including a long-standing dispute over the exact location of a border between the two countries and the huge number of Salvadorans who had migratedinto Honduras.
By the late 1960s, more than 300,000 Salvadorans had settled in Honduras, and many Hondurans resented losing their jobs to the hard-working immigrants. In addition, the two countries differed on how to apply rules relating to the emerging Central American Common Market. Salvadoran companies competed strongly against their Honduran counterparts, which slowed Honduran efforts to industrialise.
Finally, rich Honduran landowners sought a scapegoat for land imbalances in their own country, and focused attention on the easiest target: Salvadoran immigrants.
Honduras began to expel Salvadorans in the late 1960s, causing the Salvadoran press to trumpet allegations of mistreatment. Tensions peaked around the June 1969 World Cup playoffs between the two countries, and erupted into war on July 14.
The United States, which, in those days, was involved up to its neck in all sorts of covert operations in Central America aimed at checking the spread of communism in the region, did nothing to prevent the two countries from going to war or to stop the fighting.
Throughout the four-day war, the only organised call for peace was a rally staged by the Salvadoran Communist Party in San Salvador, the country’s capital. The war ended when the Organisation of American States arranged a cease-fire.
In his autobiography “Yanqui,” Lorenzo De Belveal writes: “Soccer may be just a game in other parts of the world, but in Central America it’s an endemic form of madness... Locally known as ‘futbol,’ there is nothing else in the form of sports that can begin to approach the levels of passion it evokes in the land. It isn’t hard to imagine a soccer game serving to start a war in this region...”
The underlying issue was — and still is — the matter of living space. Honduras, in 1969, had a population of about three million living in a land area of 43,260 square miles. El Salvador had a population of four million, squeezed into an area of only 8,260 square miles.
But there were also other factors that fired passions on both sides of the border. As De Belveal notes, Salvador grabbed a Honduran named Martinez Argueta, and sentenced him to twenty years in prison for illegal entry into Salvador. In retaliation, four Honduran soldiers rounded up 60 Salvadoran soldiers and locked them up. It was against this background that the 1969 soccer championship play-off took place.
The first game of the two-out-of-three championship series was played in Honduras. The game was a bare-knuckle classic even by Central American standards. Honduras managed to score a goal during the last minute of play, giving them a 1-0 win. The populace went wild. Fights broke out between the respective loyalists. The stadium was set afire.
The second game was played in San Salvador. The hotel where the Honduran team was sleeping was put to the torch during the early hours of the night. Luckily, everyone got out unharmed. After escaping from a burning hotel, the visiting team took to the field like a bunch of zombies. Needless to say, Salvador won the game.
After the game, cars were set afire in the streets. Store windows were broken. Local hospitals set new attendance records. Miraculously, the Honduran team slipped back across the border without actually losing a single man.
When the futbolistas got back to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, and told people what had happened in San Salvador, Honduran goon squads mounted a rumble against resident Salvadorans that quickly turned into a very heavy scene. Bones were broken and people were killed.
With Salvador and Honduras having won one game apiece, there were no illusions about what was going to happen when they met in Mexico City for the final confrontation. Radio, television and newspapers in both countries screamed for blood. The final meeting promised to be a soccer game the like of which hadn’t been seen since “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow.”
In the end, that’s exactly what it turned out to be — a war.
When Denmark beat France in Incheon on Tuesday, thousands of “Les Bleus” fans fell silent, while Danish fans in the opposite corner of the stadium beat on drums and sang “Ole, Ole, Ole.” Thank God there weren’t any Salvadorans or Hondurans present.