Among those of us who love football, there are some that hold the sport up as something that brings people together. Something that fosters peace and understanding. Something that transcends cultural, national, racial, ethnic, and even gender barriers. That even with the greed and corruption at the highest levels of the sport, football calls out to the better angels of our nature. We’ve written here before about how football can bring out the best of us even in the midst of war.
All this is true. Or, I should say, I choose to believe that this is true.
Yet that power is absolute. And as much as I want to think that football can stop or prevent war, it’s undeniable that it can sometimes inflame as much as it can heal.
This week we look back at the 1969 Football War, and how The Beautiful Game made way for war.
Lest we inadvertently sensationalize history it should be stated: football was not directly responsible for a war between two sovereign nations. It’s part of the story, but just to be clear, no one ordered tanks to be deployed because of the result from a soccer game.
Telling the whole story of the Football War would require a book, but here’s the abridged version:
Honduras is about five times the size of El Salvador by land area, yet in 1969 it’s population was nearly half that of their neighbors’. Salvadorans had been migrating across the border throughout the 20th century in search of work and arable land. As migration continued, Salvadorans and Hondurans were marrying and starting families. By the start of 1969, Salvadoran migrants made up roughly 20% of the population, and almost all of them were poor or working class. Many were squatters on the land they had claimed as their own.
At the time, most of Honduras’ land was held by either a small class of wealthy landowners or by large corporations. If you’re a cynic, or if you hold a dim view of the 1%, you can probably guess what happened next. The landowners were furious about the influx of these campesinos from El Salvador. Several companies and landowning families, led by the United Fruit Company (which has since been absorbed into the Chiquita empire), banded together to form a powerful special interest group called FENAGH and began pressuring the Honduran government to do something about the Salvadoran migrants.
A year after FENAGH was formed, the Honduran government started enforcing a law it had passed a few years prior that allowed for land occupied by Salvadoran migrants to be “reclaimed” and given back to native-born Hondurans. The government crackdown was applied even to Salvadorans who immigrated legally and held legitimate ownership claims to their land. Nearly 300,000 Salvadorans became refugees overnight, with many choosing to go back to El Salvador. Families were broken up and livelihoods were destroyed. It kicked off the start of one of the biggest political crises and humanitarian disasters in the region in the 20th century— and that’s saying something.
In the middle of the political turmoil, El Salvador and Honduras were set to face in each other in the CONCACAF qualifier tournament for the 1970 World Cup. The tournament for that cycle featured a group stage (four groups with three teams each, the winner of each group advances), a semifinal, and a final. At the time, CONCACAF was only allotted two slots for the World Cup, one of which was already claimed by Mexico (who qualified automatically as the hosts). The semifinals were home-and-away knockout matches; they did not use aggregate scorelines, but did provide for a tiebreaking third game in a neutral location if necessary. The winners of both semifinals would face each other in another home-and-away knockout series, with the final victor claiming the one qualifying spot.
Needless to say, the stakes were high.
Honduras won the first leg in Tegucigalpa 1-0, while El Salvador triumphed 3-0 in Salvador City a week later. Following both matches, violence erupted in and around the stadium between both sets of fans, as political tensions amped up what was already a contentious football rivalry.
For good or ill, the stage was set a must-win tiebreaker clash in Mexico City. In purely football terms, it was a classic. Juan Ramón Martínez drew first blood for El Salvador in the 10th minute. Indio Cardona, nearing the end of his club career at Atlético Madrid, equalized for Honduras in the 25th minute. Martínez got the lead back with his second goal in the 29th minute. Honduras would have to wait until the 51st minute for another equalizer. 90 minutes ended up not being enough to settle the matter and the game was thrown into extra time. Finally, Mauricio Rodríguez scored the gamewinner for El Salvador in the 101st minute.
It was, by all accounts, a thrilling contest. It was also a match thrown on spilled gasoline.
On the day of the match in Mexico City, El Salvador ended diplomatic relations with Honduras. The government issued a statement condemning Honduras for the treatment of Salvadoran migrants in some of the harshest language possible.
”The government of Honduras has not taken any effective measures to punish these crimes which constitute genocide, nor has it given assurances of indemnification or reparations for the damages caused to Salvadorans.”
A few weeks later, on July 14th, El Salvador began conducting air raids over Honduran air space. One of their primary targets was the airport in the capital city, which rendered Honduras’ own air force unable to respond in kind. Ground forces moved in almost immediately after the bombing started, with the Salvadoran army moving within striking distance of Tegucigalpa within a day.
With hostilities escalating rapidly, the OAS called for an immediate cease-fire, which both countries ultimately agreed to on July 18th. The fighting all but stopped on the 20th, and El Salvador had withdrawn their forces by the start of August.
The war lasted for 100 hours and claimed roughly 3000 lives. It would take nearly a decade for diplomatic ties to be fully re-established.
Meanwhile, El Salvador went on to face Haiti (who had easily dispensed with the USMNT in the other semifinal) in the qualifying final. A tiebreaker was once again necessary, but El Salvador ultimately triumphed. They were assigned to Group 1 in the World Cup the following summer, along with hosts and fellow CONCACAFers Mexico, Belgium, and the Soviet Union. El Salvador finished bottom of the group, losing all three of their matches.
Today, bilateral relations between El Salvador and Honduras are stable and peaceful, although it was a hard-won peace. A formal treaty was signed in 1980, with both countries agreeing to settle the land and border issue through the International Court of Justice. The court finally ruled in 1992, siding primarily with Honduras and giving them most of the land back. In the years following the ICJ ruling, the two countries worked out an equitable agreement over the land and Salvadoran migrants that remained.
That, more or less, is the story of the Football War. Two countries. Nine goals between them. 100 hours of madness. 3000 dead. And, finally, peace.