On the 40th anniversary of the “football war” Jonathan Barker asks if a World Cup play-off really led to armed conflict

On December 29, 1968, Honduras, widely regarded one as of the lesser lights of Central American football, caused a major surprise in the 1970 World Cup eliminators by overcoming a Costa Rica side that had been favoured to qualify for Mexico. Their opponents in the next round would be neighbouring El Salvador. Seemingly of little interest to the outside world, the three games the countries played in June 1969 would become the focal point of simmering tensions between the two governments, with the subsequent conflict coming to be known, however misleadingly, as the “football war”.

The Salvadorans would not lack for support when they played the first leg in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on June 8. Honduras was a much larger and less densely populated country, the classic “banana republic”, with much of the land owned and cultivated by American fruit companies. By the late 1960s it was estimated that between 300,000 and 350,000 Salvadorans, desperate to escape poverty, had migrated to cultivate unclaimed strips of land in the poorly defined border region.

Initially the Honduran authorities had tolerated this influx, but by 1968 the country’s military regime headed by Colonel Osvaldo López Arellano faced a deteriorating economic and political situation. A wave of strikes had been repressed by the military and the Honduran peasants were demanding land reform. López Arellano, unwilling to alienate the local elite and the American fruit companies that owned most of the land, chose instead to target the Salvadoran migrants, who were blamed for the country’s social and economic ills, before introducing a land reform programme in early 1969.

By the time of the first match on June 8, 1969, refugees were returning to San Salvador with graphic tales of beatings, rapes and murders carried out by local vigilantes. Despite this the match – a hard fought 1-0 victory for the hosts – passed off largely without incident, and was overshadowed by news of the deadly floods which marked the onset of the region’s rainy season.

However in the week before the return tensions rose between the two governments. The Honduran squad became the focus of bitter anger that had been stirred up by Salvadoran press reports of the expulsions. The Salvadoran government, no doubt seeking to exploit this resentment, accorded a state funeral and the status of national martyr to 18-year-old Amelia Bolanios, who had apparently shot herself after the Hondurans’ last minute winner. Her funeral was televised, with president General Fidel Sánchez Hernández, his ministers and the El Salvador players walking solemnly behind her coffin.

Two days before the return tie, the Honduran sports federation called on FIFA to postpone the game, citing a number of attacks on Honduran expatriates and travelling supporters. On the eve of the match, a mob of several thousand surrounded the Honduran team’s city centre hotel, smashing windows and attempting to burn it down. The party had to be evacuated to spend the night at safe houses. The next day they were transported to the stadium in a fleet of armoured cars. There they saw their flag burnt, and a dirty rag run up in its place before jeering local supporters.

The Hondurans complained that the referee had been so intimidated by the poisonous atmosphere he awarded the home side a dubious penalty, then allowed a clearly offside goal to stand as El Salvador took a three-goal lead by half time. If so, the away team must surely have understood how the referee felt. Afterwards Honduran coach Mario Griffin exclaimed: “Thank God we lost the game, otherwise we wouldn’t be alive today.” They then needed another lift home courtesy of the Honduran army’s armoured cars.

El Salvador’s 3-0 victory forced a play-off that would take place at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium on June 27. However by then relations between the two states had reached breaking point. Within days of the second match, El Salvador had declared a state of emergency and mobilised military reservists; on the eve of the decider the countries broke off diplomatic relations. Public opinion in both countries was inflamed by accounts of the mistreatment suffered by their fellow countrymen at the hands of their neighbours. Salvadorans read of the thousands of refugees fleeing persecution across the border, while Honduran newspapers printed graphic details of attacks on travelling supporters before, during and after the match in San Salvador, and accused Sánchez Hernández of orchestrating the mayhem.

Although fiercely contested, the play-off was hardly the bloodbath depicted in some subsequent reports. The technically superior Salvadorans started much stronger, and profited from slack defending to take the lead twice during the first half. However after a second Honduran equaliser shortly after the restart, they faded. With 15 minutes remaining, Honduras looked the more likely winners when El Salvador midfielder Quintanilla struck the Hondurans’ best player, Atlético Madrid striker Jose Cardona, in the throat, forcing him to be substituted. It was the one really unsavoury incident of the match, and was probably the turning point. In Cardona’s absence, the Hondurans wasted two opportunities to win the match in the last five minutes, and with them went their best chance of winning the tie.

FIFA had decreed beforehand that if scores were still level after 120 minutes the Salvadorans would advance due to their superior record in the first two games, so Mauricio Rodriguez’s goal 11 minutes into extra time effectively counted double and settled the tie in El Salvador’s favour. It was to be the last game between the two countries for another 11 years. Border clashes between the two armies were reported within days of the play-off, and El Salvador invaded on July 14. Although a truce was called after four days of fighting which left an estimated 6,000 dead, a peace treaty was not signed until 1980, allowing the two countries to play a brace of World Cup qualifiers. El Salvador made it to Mexico in 1970 after winning another three game series against Haiti with Argentine coach Gregorio Bundio punching unconscious a Haitian witch doctor whose presence had apparently terrified his players before the decisive match in Jamaica.

However the war would seriously disrupt the team’s preparations for the tournament. Concacaf disqualified both countries from its 1969 Nations Cup, and then in April 1970 the Salvadoran players walked out of a training camp when they did not receive a promised $1,000 (£600) qualification bonus. The football federation said they hadn’t received the money from the government, which in turn claimed it had already been spent on funding the war. Given a lack of adequate replacements the team soon got their way, but the dispute was to cost Bundio his job for alleged disloyalty in failing to inform the FA of the players’ intention to strike; Chilean Hernán Carrasco replaced him just weeks before the finals. El Salvador went to lose all three matches conceding nine goals while failing to score.

If it was not a “football war”, then neither were the games purely coincidental. Events around the ties enabled both governments to appeal to extreme nationalist and xenophobic sentiment: the López Arellano regime could redirect much popular hostility against its neighbours, while their Salvadoran counterparts might not have been able to implement long held invasion plans without the reports of mistreatment of Salvadoran supporters in Tegucigalpa. As well as bringing different cultures together, football can also be the source of mutual distrust, and at times irrational hatred. In many respects the events of June and July 1969 symbolised this perfectly.

From WSC 269 July 2009

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