On July 14, 1969, Honduras and El Salvador went to war. The 100 hour war took 6000 lives, 12,000 were wounded, and 50,000 people rendered homeless The cause was ostensibly the World Cup matches between Honduras and El Salvador qualifying for Mexico '70.
The bitterly contested first match played at Tegucigelpa, Honduras saw the Hondurans beat the El Salvadorans 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. Newspapers on both sides before the match waged a campaign of hate, slander and abuse, calling each other Nazis, dwarfs, drunkards, sadists, spiders, aggressors and thieves.
In the return match that took place in El Salvador, things got quickly out of control. 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.
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.
Early on the morning of July 14, 1969, concerted military action began in what came to be known as the Soccer War. The Salvadoran air force attacked targets inside Honduras and the Salvadoran army launched major offensives along the main road connecting the two nations and against the Honduran islands in the Golfo de Fonseca. At first, the Salvadorans made fairly rapid progress. By the evening of July 15, the Salvadoran army, which was considerably larger and better equipped than its Honduran opponent, pushed the Honduran army back over eight kilometers and captured the departmental capital of Nueva Ocotepeque. Thereafter, the attack bogged down, and the Salvadorans began to experience fuel and ammunition shortages. A major reason for the fuel shortage was the action of the Honduran air force, which--in addition to largely destroying the smaller Salvadoran air force--had severely damaged El Salvador's oil storage facilities.
A ceasefire was called by the OAS the next day but El Salvador resisted the call and the war went on. Finally, with the Salvadoran army bogging down, a cease-fire was arranged on the night of July 18; it took full effect only on July 20.
The causal aspects of what is now called the Soccer Wars is complex but the manifestation took place in the most overtly nationalistic setting, a series of soccer matches between both countries. It was the effect of a deteriorating situation between Honduras and El Salvador that had gone on for a long time and involved the lack of land reform and trade imbalance, primarily on the part of El Salvador with its small size, high population density, and relatively developed economy. The fuedal structure of El Salvadoran society saw land in the hands of a few prominent families. The rest of the populace was largely landless. The years saw an influx of thousands of illegal Salvadorean immigrants into the border areas of Honduras where land was relatively unclaimed.
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.
Throughout the 1960s, Honduran peasants became more politicized and demanded agricultural reform and land redistribution. The Honduran government passed an agricultural reform act, though it did not intend to break up the land of either the oligarchic ruling class or of the United Fruit Company, a U.S.-based banana company. The only alternative left, therefore, was to repossess the land of the more than 300,000 Salvadoran immigrants who had resettled in Honduras. The possibilities of the repatriation of land and deportation of these immigrants alarmed El Salvador as it shuddered at the possible return of more than 300,000 landless, restless peasants.
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. This was the context in which the Soccer Wars took place, a use of soccer for nationalistic purposes that had a destructive and divisive impact in Honduras and El Salvador.
References to the Soccer Wars:
'The Ambiguities of Football, Politics, Culture, and Social Transformation in Latin America' by Bar-On, T. (1997)
Scarcity and Survival in Central America: Ecological Origins of the Soccer War William H Durham (Stanford University Press, 1979)
ICE Case Studies
The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Vintage International) (Paperback)