How Honduras And El Salvador (Sort Of) Went To War Over A Soccer Match
Sports can bring out the worst in people. While ugly rivalries usually just lead to mean comments online or, at worst mild bar fights, a particularly bitter international rivalry led to a soccer match (or “football,” if you prefer) being the backdrop for a brutal but short conflict. This is the story of the Football War.
The year was 1969, and the El Salvador and Honduras national soccer teams were vying for a spot in the 1970 FIFA World Cup. They competed in a three-match series in June, and the winner advanced to the World Cup. Behind the scenes, though, more was going on than just soccer. El Salvador and Honduras are neighboring Central American countries, and a history of border disputes and other clashes had soured relations between the two countries. In the 1960s, the main issue between the two was an influx of Salvadoran migrants into Honduras.
El Salvador is geographically much smaller than Honduras, and much of the land in El Salvador was controlled by landowning elites. This limited the opportunities for Salvadoran farmers, which led to 300,000 Salvadorans migrating to Honduras, a country with more available land. Eventually, the Honduran government enacted land reforms, which sent Salvadorans back to El Salvador, and this led to heightened tensions that coincided with the three-match soccer series.
Despite the risk of conflict, the national teams played. Game 1 was held in Honduras, and the home team won 1-0. Game 2 was held in El Salvador, and the home team won 3-0. Reports of riots and attempts to intimidate the visiting team turned the series into an international spectacle. The deciding match in the series would be held on June 27, 1969, at the neutral site of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. In an extra-time thriller, El Salvador won 3-2 and earned their place in the World Cup.
On the same day as the deciding match, diplomatic ties were cut between the two countries. Again, this was a coincidence rather than either side being moved to action by the soccer match. Within a few weeks, on July 14, 1969, the two sides were at war. Using World War II-era P-51 Mustangs, El Salvador launched an assault on Honduras. The Salvadoran military was superior, but their advance into Honduras was stopped in part due to civilian resistance and limited ammo. Honduras countered, but they too had limited supplies for this type of conflict.
Just a few days later, on July 18, the Organization of American States arranged a ceasefire, and the Football War, also known as the 100 Hour War, was over. Roughly 3,000 people were dead, with Honduran civilians making up a majority of the casualties.
The role that the soccer matches played in the conflict often takes center stage when discussing the Football War. It’s even in the name the conflict typically goes by. However, the connection between the sport and the fighting may be overstated. Media coverage at the time, in El Salvador, Honduras, and abroad, focused on the sporting rivalry, with the third game in the series being referred to as the “Soccer War” before any fighting had occurred. Scholars generally agree that conflict would have broken out with or without the soccer games. There are even misconceptions that the tension is what led to the third game being played in Mexico when in reality, it had been scheduled there in advance.
In the aftermath of the war, tensions would remain high. Neither side gained nor lost territory from the fighting, and a decade later, El Salvador would find itself in a 12-year civil war. As for the winning national soccer team, El Salvador did go on to play in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, but they failed to advance past the group stage after losing all three matches.
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