I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will ‘lose face’.
– George Orwell, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, The Tribune, December 1945.
Following Dynamo Moscow’s scintillating goodwill tour of Britain in 1945, George Orwell penned an explosive critique of international sport. Orwell believed that sporting competition was a considerably powerful tool, ready-made for propaganda purposes. He feared that it could be used to intentionally drum up nationalistic sentiment, a dangerous option at the onset of the nuclear age. As it transpired, some 24 years later, in the banana republics which mosaic Central America, football would be used in such a way. Shortly after their 1970 World Cup qualification playoff, a simmering feud between El Salvador and Honduras suddenly erupted into open warfare. This was to be known as ‘The Football War’.
Prologue and the first leg
Whilst football is often ignorantly described as the primary cause of the conflict, tensions ran much deeper between the two neighbouring nations. At the onset of the war in 1969, there were around 2,333,000 people living in Honduras. This was about 700,000 less than in the much smaller El Salvador.
A high population density in El Salvador was reinforced by a rigid class structure which had survived from the era of Spanish colonisation. The vast majority of the area was controlled by only 14 historic land-owning families. As such, around 300,000 of Honduras’ population were immigrants from their neighbour hoping to seek a new life. They made up a whopping 20% of the Honduran peasant population.
However, economic instability and authoritarianism are unfortunately running themes in the history of Latin America. Characteristically, both sides appealed to popular nationalism and xenophobia to deflect from their own shoddy mismanagement. By 1969, Honduras’ dictatorship had backed out of an unpopular bilateral treaty on immigration. This treaty had been reluctantly agreed upon only two years previously.
Furthermore, a new land reform bill was instituted, redistributing land in favour of the native Hondurans. Vulnerable Salvadorans were to be made homeless. Worse still, in April it was announced that they would also be forcibly expelled from the country. Jingoism was drummed up against the immigrant community, as they were chased over the border. The population equilibrium which had been achieved, whilst not always desirable, was suddenly destroyed. This led to a further economic crisis in both nations. The only thing on the up for both sides was some success on the football pitch.
With two points being awarded for a win, each of the two nations’ three-team 1970 World Cup qualifying groups were tight. Despite this, both sides nearly earned a 100% record. Honduras drew their final game, away in Costa Rica, whilst El Salvador were thrashed 4-1 by Suriname. They had both already qualified comfortably for the second round, however. As respective group winners, the two sides were scheduled to meet each other in a best-of-three playoff.
On 8 June, the first leg was held in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. With tensions rising due to the growing humanitarian disaster unfolding on the border, the El Salvador players were entering a highly hostile environment. Despite the diplomatic situation deteriorating, however, few from the outside saw any non-footballing significance to the tie. The Polish foreign correspondent, Ryszard Kapuściński, argued that the atmosphere was nothing unexpected for a Latin American football clash. “Nobody in the world paid any attention,” he wrote. It was believed that this would simply be another game.
Ultimately, it was close. With neither team managing to score within the first 90 minutes of normal play, it would require a sudden goal deep in added time to break Salvadoran hearts. The Hondurans saw their 1-0 victory as vindication of their supremacy. The away side saw it as another humiliation for their people.
The stadium, the Estadio Nacional, represented the whole nation of Honduras. The visiting team were there to compete for their compatriot’s rights to settle. Rather, they were to depart empty-handed, in the cruellest fashion. For Salvadorans such as teenager Amelia Bolanos, it was too much. The national shame was unbearable. She took her own life as soon as the game had ended.
The second leg
“Eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanos” Kapuściński wrote in his book, The Soccer War, “was sitting in front of the TV in El Salvador when Honduran striker Roberto Cardona scored the winning goal in the final minute. She got up and ran to the desk that contained her father’s pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart.”
Her death would be shamefully stage-managed and used as a point of propaganda by the Salvadoran establishment. At her televised funeral, Bolanos’ coffin was followed by the President and his ministers, as well as the now-returned Salvadoran national team. With this, the second leg of the qualifying play-off adopted an unprecedented, nationalistic overtone.
The usual pre-match disorder was ramped up as soon as the Hondurans touched down at the airport in San Salvador. The Salvadorans would not permit their visitors to feel comfortable for one second. Enrique “the Rabbit” Cardona, Honduras’ star player, was greeted by a sea of posters depicting him being ironically beaten by a giant rabbit. They were abused all the way to their hotel.
The American economist and eye witness to the events, Lorenzo Dee Belveal, wrote, “when the Hondurans arrived in the neighbouring capital the reception was a lot like the one the lions used to give the Christians in the Roman Coliseum: we’re glad you’re here, and you will find out why.”
A Salvadoran army general, General José Alberto Medrano, led a chaotic night of disturbances outside of the Honduran hotel. Two people were dead and seven injured after clashes with the police. The Hondurans wisely decamped to their embassy. The following day, 15 June, they would make their way to the stadium escorted by tanks and Salvadoran armoured divisions.
Already beyond doubt, observers knew that they were not witnessing the colourful flare which usually takes centre stage in Latin American football. The organised, visceral hatred between the two nations continued right up to kick off. A dirty rag was raised as opposed to the Honduran flag, which had been burned, during the customary national anthems.
Talk about a psychological edge though. The Salvadorans notched three goals in quick succession. Juan Ramón Martínez, Elmer Acevedo, and a second from Martínez brought a crushing 3-0 victory. They had dominated the game. The Honduran coach, Bruno Griffin, was sympathetic to his players’ efforts, however: “They had their minds on getting out alive. We’re awfully lucky that we lost.” Enrique Cardona concurred, admitting that had they won they “wouldn’t be alive today.”
The Honduran fans were not as fortunate. They were chased from the stadium and beaten by the exuberant Salvadorans. They would return home and relay their stories of what they had seen and how they had been treated to their fellow countrymen. A desperate need for revenge now overlaid the already tense political situation. Growing hostilities forced the hand of the footballing authorities. CONCACAF arranged for the deciding leg to be played on 27 June at the Azteca in Mexico.
The third leg and the war
The growing tension between the two on the international stage was palpable. Refugees continued to stream across from Honduras and back to their homeland. Yet, after 17,000 Salvadorans had already made their way back, the border was promptly shut.
In the days before the fixture, a feeling of wartime belligerence had become entrenched. The Argentine coach of El Salvador was summoned to meet with the President. Gregorio Bunido was informed that his side “had to defend the national colours because this match was for our national dignity.”
The game is available on YouTube, although its picture quality is difficult to tolerate for a whole 120 minutes. Similar to the first leg, it was another tight affair. Perhaps this was due to the mental attrition which benefited El Salvador in the second-leg being negated by the neutral setting. Or maybe it was the weather. Torrential rain showered over the 5,000 Mexican police deployed to keep the soon-to-be-warring fans apart.
All the same, the malice existing between the two is evident enough on film. It was another rugged affair. Cardona claimed, “they kicked me off the pitch!” After being pegged back twice, El Salvador finally snatched victory after extra time to seal a 3-2 victory. They had nearly qualified for a return trip for the 1970 World Cup finals, although they first had to overcome an inspired Haitian side in another playoff. In the meantime, however, football would take a back seat.
Within hours of the final whistle, formal diplomatic relations between the two had been dissolved. On 14 July, El Salvador invaded, intending to stop the “genocide”. The ‘100 Hours War’ had begun. The Salvadorans stormed towards their rival’s capital. They progressed rapidly along the two main roads between the two nations, butchering resisting Hondurans in their wake. Soon, however, the Hondurans rallied. They mustered their inferior weaponry to first resist and then launch a series of air strikes and attacks on Salvadoran oil installations. A stalemate was looking increasingly likely.
The Organisation of American States (OAS) was summoned to find a resolution quickly. Whilst both sides were running out of steam at the highest levels of the military, on the ground intermittent fighting between feuding civilians was still rampant. Archive footage shows the often desolate landscape marked by hastily dug graves for the dead.
In this incredibly brief period of time, around 6,000 people were killed, 12,000 injured and over 50,000 left homeless. After much political wrangling between the Salvadorans, Honduras and the OAS, an 18 July ceasefire was finally enacted, albeit two days later. The Salvadorans finally retreated on 2 August.
Their World Cup development
Bypassing Haiti, El Salvador returned to Mexico less than a year later for the 1970 World Cup finals. They performed abysmally, perhaps just as expected. In their three games, all played at the Azteca, they conceded nine goals without reply. They finished bottom of their admittedly tough group which featured Mexico, the Soviet Union and Belgium.
Qualifying once again, for Spain in 1982, they similarly crashed out with three losses. Despite scoring once through Luis Ramírez Zapata, the game would ideally best be forgotten at home. They made headlines by recording the competition’s greatest ever defeat, losing 10-1 to Hungary.
In fact, both sides qualified for Spain. Yet, Honduras gained the plaudits despite also finishing bottom of their group. Respectable 1-1 draws with their Spanish hosts and then perhaps Northern Ireland’s greatest ever side, as well as a late 1-0 defeat to Yugoslavia, showed that they were no-pushovers.
In recent times, the balance of footballing prowess between the two nations has tipped in favour of the Hondurans. Qualifying for two consecutive World Cups, in South Africa and Brazil, Honduras could rely on a spine of players who earned their stripes in Europe’s top leagues. They’ve yet to record a victory or finish any higher than last in their group but this shouldn’t discount their talent. Their 2010-14 World Cup heydays rested on a golden generation of players who reignited momentum and enthusiasm for the game.
Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa both played in the Premier League for several years. Carlos Pavón and David Suazo had gained considerable experience in Italy, Spain and Portugal between them. Emilio Izaguirre, one of the most exciting wing-backs to play in Scotland, was signed by Celtic following his impressive 2010 World Cup showing. Honduran players have continued to play abroad, on either side of the Atlantic, showing a precocious level of footballing development.
Their current squad, scheduled to next play Ecuador, shows that a new generation is emerging, with an average age of 26. This has been pushed higher due to the continued presence of World Cup veterans such as Figueroa and Izaguirre. Clearly, a defensive nucleus is seen as crucial for developing future success. Nonetheless, this is a young squad with the capability to build on their forebearers legacy. Both El Salvador and Honduras will be hoping that the enlarged World Cups in Qatar and North America will be within their reach.
It’s unfortunate that on the European side of the Atlantic, such a conflict is often derided as Latin American passion turned hyperglycaemic. When the Coventry Evening Telegraph claimed in the summer of 1969 that “two tiny Central American countries went to war today – over a football match”, they were being disingenuous. After all, the official figure of those killed in the contemporary Mau Mau Uprising between the United Kingdom and Kenya from 1952-60 is 12,000 deaths. Despite only lasting four days, close to half of that figure died during ‘The Football War’. The war should not be seen as anecdotal.
Orwell was thus correct to an extent. Football can be used for propaganda but it’s not the cause of violence. The ‘Football War’ illustrates that as fans, we should be wary of the immense power which 22 people on a pitch wield. In Central America in 1969, two despotic governments found football to be the most fertile ground for their ill-conceived ideologies to grow. In 2019, 50 years later, we should aim to channel the game’s awesome potential for good.