The Soccer War: Forty Years Later

by Chris Borgen

Next month is the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras, made famous by an elegaic essay by Ryszard Kapuscinski. (See also this clip, in Spanish Catalan.)

In the midst of heated disputes over immigration, trade, border delineation and other issues, the two countries played each other in three qualifying games for the World Cup, one held in each country and a third in Mexico. The series of games were marred by violence. According to an excellent summary in The Soccer Blog:

The bitterly contested first match played at Tegucigalpa, 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…

In the next 100 hours, about 4,000 people were killed and 12,000 wounded. If I remember correctly, a large part of Kapuscinski’s essay takes place with him watching a young soldier who has been shot in the stomach slowly die. 

A cease-fire was ultimately brokered through the United States and the OAS, but it would take years to resolve the underlying issues. The war played a part in the 22 year suspension of the Central American Common Market. The border issue was ultimately resolved via the ICJ in the 1990’s.

As for the soccer rivalry… back in 1969 El Salvador won the tie-breaking match played in Mexico and qualified for the World Cup. Last week, the two soccer rivals met again almost 40 years to the day in one of the 2010 World Cup qualifying games.  Honduras won 1-0.

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/06/15/the-soccer-war-forty-years-later/

4 Responses

  1. Interesting indeed. I guess we have made a lot of progress in 40 years, but looking at both countries it actually doesn’t seem like nearly as much as one might have hoped.

    That also brings to ming the Russia-Hungary waterpolo match in the Melbourne Olympics, with the difference being that the ‘soccer war’ was an actual war that usurped a soccer match, whereas in Melbourne the violence played out between the two teams during the game:

    Throughout the match players of both sides exchanged kicks and punches. The referee ordered five players out of the water – three Russians and two Hungarians. Every Hungarian goal brought cheers, while Russian attempts to score brought groans and catcalls except from a small section.
    There were several incidents early in the second half when a Russian player was punched or kicked. But the final demonstration began when Valentine Prokopov, of Russia, swam up to Ervin Zador, of Hungary, and punched him in the eye while the ball was at the other end of the pool.

    The context was (obviously) Russia’s recent invasion of Hungary. I wonder how often national tensions run over onto the sporting field? I would guess that this is two of the most blatant examples.

  2. Interesting, indeed.

  3. The video’s in catalan, not spanish, in case you wonder why you don’t understand it.

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