The games that kicked off a War

In 1969 the Central American countries of Honduras and El Salvador met in a CONCACAF 1970 World Cup qualifier that would become the catalyst of a brief, four day war between the two neighbouring nations.

The games occurred at the semi-final stage of the qualifying campaign with the first taking place in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on 8th June 1969.

Although Honduras earned a 1-0 victory over their rivals via a Roberto Cardona injury-time strike, fighting between the two sets of fans and the suicide of a young Salvadorian girl after the defeat claimed the headlines.

El Salvador used the girl’s suicide to fuel a sense of national fervour before the return leg just a week later. The 18-year-old’s funeral was attended by the El Salvador President, minsters and the national team in a televised event.

The Salvadorian team that met Honduras at the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup CONCACAF qualifiers.
The Salvadorian team that met Honduras at the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup CONCACAF qualifiers.

Ahead of the return leg in San Salvador, the Honduran national team experienced the same kind of abuse that their rivals had experienced just a week before – a sleepless night with all kinds of unpleasantness from noise to rotten eggs and dead rats being thrown through broken hotel windows.

The tension between the countries was at an all-time high before the game in which the home team won. El Salvador ran out 3-0 winners over the Hondurans, which meant a third and final, play-off match would have to be held to determine which country would make it to the final.

The qualifiers were played at a time before the use of goal difference to decide results, which meant that both countries were level on points after claiming a victory each. Another game was simply a necessity.

After the second game, like in Tegucigalpa a week before, violence filled the newspaper headlines with riots that resulted in the deaths of two Honduran fans on the streets of San Salvador.

Violence also erupted across the border in Honduras as gangs terrorized local Salvadorians in an attempt to drive them out of their neighbourhoods and back to El Salvador.

A neutral venue was chosen for the stage of the third and final game – Mexico City.  The game was played out in front of 15,326 fans in torrential rain on 26th June 1969.

As many as 5,000 Salvadorian fans made the almost 800km trip to the Mexican capital but the match was played out with relatively few off-the-pitch incidents  – perhaps largely due to the 5,000 strong Mexican police force that separated both rival Salvadorian and Honduran fans as well as the local supporters who were in attendance.

On the field, the Salvadorians twice went ahead via two Juan Ramon Martinez strikes only to be pegged back in the 19th and 50th minutes through Jose Enrique Cardona and Rigoberto Gomez which meant that 30 minutes of extra-time was needed to decide the result which seemed to be taking an eternity – just five hours of football to be precise.

El Salvador coach Gregorigo Bundio realised that Cardona was the Hondurans biggest threat, so instructed his players to use any necessary measures to prevent the threat of the striker, which they duly did by kicking him out of the game.

The round was finally settled in the 101st minute through a Jose Antonio Quintanilla strike that sealed the result at 3-2.

The Salvadorians were through and subsequently beat Haiti over another three games to reach their first World Cup Finals in Mexico.

El Salvador defeats Honduras to reach the 1970 World Cup

The final whistle may have sounded the end of the football but the bad blood between the two countries was just starting to come to an unfortunate head.

Just hours after the game had ended, El Salvador announced that it had severed all diplomatic ties with its neighbour as a result of ‘the Honduran Government not taking effective measures to punish the crimes that constitute the genocide of Salvadorians.’  The Government was of referring to the immigrants who were being chased out of Honduras after the violence that followed the second leg in San Salvador.

The very next day the Honduran Government announced it was severing all ties with its counterpart – the first steps of the inevitable war that would be remembered as La guerra del fútbol or the Football War.

Despite the name, the war was not entirely a result of the World Cup qualifying matches but down to a complex economic and land dispute between the neighbouring countries that had been simmering for decades.

Thirty years prior, the smaller and overpopulated El Salvador had a significantly unequal distribution of land due to the wealthy and large corporations which meant that the standard of living for many poorer citizens declined to a level that was no longer sustainable.

The result was thousands of landless peasants being forced over the border into the more sparsely-populated Honduras in search for work. Both Governments tried to stem the flow but by the start of the war in 1969, as many as 300,000 Salvadorian immigrants were living and working in the country.

The majority of those made up the 20% of the peasant population of Honduras – a huge number which was unsustainable with the land reforms the Government had legislated two years earlier in 1967.

In passing the legislation that was designed to protect the wealthy land owners in the country, President General Lopez Arellano’s decision meant that many Salvadorians were displaced and the land that they illegally claimed as their own was redistributed to native Hondurans.

Tensions between the natives and immigrants were growing steadily and exacerbated further by the allegations of torture and beatings dished out by the former. As many as 17,000 immigrants were displaced and forced to flee back into an unwelcoming El Salvador which was already struggling to support its people.

By the time the first bomb was dropped by El Salvador on the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on 14th July 1969, the quarrel between the two nations had been on-going for over 30 years – the football games simply acted as a nationalistic spark to ignite the conflict that had been brewing for years.

War planes in action during the Football War
War planes in action during the Football War

The war itself lasted just four days until a ceasefire was agreed on the 18th July 1969. Although the war was short-lived, over 3000 casualties were suffered, many of which were civilians on the Honduran side after they had joined the army in resisting the Salvadorian advance.

The ceasefire took effect after Honduras agreed that it would provide adequate safety for the Salvadorians that were still living in the country with the Salvadorian army finally withdrawing its troops on 2nd August.

The after-effects of the war were felt for several decades with many Hondurans losing property and land to the fighting with many thousands of returning Salvadorians being rendered homeless in a state that wasn’t able to support them economically.

The socioeconomic problems that ensued such as extreme poverty and over-population mixed with a strengthened military were some of the main causes of the 12-year El Salvador Civil War which began a decade later in 1979.

With the Salvadorians concerns turning to the troubles in their homeland, the Governments finally signed a Peace Treaty on 30th October 1980 which included an agreement to resolve a border dispute which is still on-going in the Courts today.

After all the conflict and suffering that the qualifying games of 1969 ultimately sparked, La Selecta had a chance to restore some national pride and hope with the World Cup taking place the following June.

Although the Salvadorians were not expected to do well, the familiar climate and surroundings of Central America should have played to their advantage and were expected to at least put up a fight against more illustrious opponents.

Unfortunately for the team and country as a whole, it wasn’t to be and they were dumped out of the tournament in the very first round. The Salvadorians failed to register a single goal and were duly beaten by Belgium (3-0), Mexico (4-0) in somewhat controversial circumstances and the Soviet Union (2-0) in a tournament that was won by the great Brazilian team that is widely considered one of the best ever.



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