When Football led to War

On the 26th of March, El Salvador will welcome Honduras to Estadio Cuscatlán for a football qualifier, which both sides hope eventually will lead to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The neighbouring countries have faced off against each other 60 times in the past, but three games in 1969 will always be remembered with sorrow and fear.

Football is often described as a war. The players are the soldiers, paid a fortune to battle for club and country. The fans spectate, filled with adrenaline, chanting the names of their favourite players and clubs. Even though the word war is used in metaphorical terms, in 1969, it did, in fact, start a real war. The tensions had been growing in the region for a long time. El Salvador, only a fifth of the sizeneighbouring Honduras but with a bigger population, was in a bad economical state. This led to a large migration of Salvadorans who crossed the border and settled in Honduras.

In June 1969, Honduras was to face El Salvador and the winner would face Haiti in a final leg to qualify for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. By that time, Salvadorans made up about 20% of Honduras’ peasant population and nationalist movements in Honduras had developed. Beatings, torture and even murder of Salvadoran immigrants took place. The Honduran government took advantage of the anti-Salvadoran atmosphere in the country and passed a law that confiscated property from Salvadoran immigrants and banned them from owning land. When the settlers returned home with tales of their horrible treatment abroad, fury grew in El Salvador. All that was needed to create an explosion was a spark. That spark was football.

The first match, played in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, finished with a Honduran win, 1-0. According to reports, a Salvadoran woman committed suicide after the game. There are doubts as to whether the reason for the suicide was football or not, but Salvadoran media covered the story in detail and the woman’s funeral was televised. The second leg, played in San Salvador, resulted in a 3-0 El Salvador victory. In the aftermath of the second game, two Honduran supporters were killed and several Honduran cars were set on fire.

As both teams had won on home turf, the deciding match was to be played in Mexico. Before the game, the president of El Salvador, Fidel Sánchez Hernández, invited the Salvadoran players to his palace and ordered them to win for the sake of all the abused settlers in Honduras. The game was tense and riddled with mistakes but El Salvador eventually came out on top, beating its rival 3-2. Unfortunately, the win led to more violence against the Salvadoran settlers that remained in Honduras.

To win the football game wasn’t enough to reconcile the treatment of Salvadorans in Honduras. On the same day as the deciding game, El Salvador broke all diplomatic ties with its neighbour. Two weeks later, on July 14 1969, the Salvadoran air force began striking targets in Honduras and ground forces entered Honduran soil. This was the first time that El Salvador’s army had ever engaged in battle. The Honduran army responded and full-scale war began. The Hondurans were successful in the air, destroying much of El Salvador’s air force. On the ground the Salvadoran troops were strong, advancing quickly and seizing strategic locations.

Just one day after the first strikes were launched The Organization of American States demanded that El Salvador withdraw from Honduras, but President Fidel Sánchez Hernández refused unless he was promised that Honduras would compensate the Salvadoran settlers. Eventually, negotiations led to cease-fire after four days of battling, and the troops finally left Honduras in August. The four-day battle is by some claimed to be one of the few wars fought between two democracies.

The war is seen as a loss for both sides. Over 100,000 Salvadoran settlers left Honduras and returned home after the cease-fire, destabilizing the already over-populated country. About 250 Honduran soldiers were killed together with 2,000 Honduran civilians. Salvador lost about 2,000 people, combining soldiers and civilians. Even though the cease-fire was agreed on July 18 1969, it would take eleven more years until a final peace treaty was signed.

Today, Honduras and El Salvador do enjoy peace and economical trade. Though some border disputes have taken place, the two countries do have a stable relationship, benefitting from trade as each other’s second biggest economical partner. Moreover, many Honduran tourists spend time in El Salvador and vice versa. The border dispute was finally resolved in 2006, when the leadership of both countries agreed on a frontier

As Honduran and El Salvadoran fans are getting psyched ahead of the 61st clash between the countries on the 26th of March, they are certainly pleased that this time, the battle will take place on the football pitch only, fought in football jerseys, and not in military uniforms.

How did El Salvador end up doing in the qualification? They managed to beat Haiti to qualify for the World Cup. However, the tournament turned out to be a big disappointment for the country, losing against the Soviet Union, Belgium and Mexico, and not scoring a single goal.

Vilhelm Fritzon

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