BY CHRIS WINDLE
In 1969 the majority of the world, certainly the western world, was excited by the prospect of man finally landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were about to make history. However, in Central America, football history was about to be made as a series of matches sparked what became known as “the football war”.
It was June 1969 and qualifying was taking place for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The winners of Honduras vs. El Salvador, to be played over two legs, would take on the winners of USA and Haiti for the remaining place in the World Cup finals. Despite being neighbouring countries, there was no love lost between them. Whilst the US Government had invested in both countries, El Salvador had been given far more, leaving Honduras as the poorer relation. With a population increase in El Salvador, many farmers were left without land and over the border Honduras was in a position of having less populated land. The two leaders signed an agreement called the “Convention of Bilateral Immigration” that seemed a perfect solution. This soon resulted in nearly 300,000 Salvadorians crossing the border into Honduras to establish themselves as farmers.
Poverty was already an issue in Honduras and the locals did not take kindly to these people coming over the border to work their land. As a result, tensions heightened and wanting to be seen to care for the local farmers, the Honduran leader ordered the expulsion of 300,000 El Salvador nationals living in Honduras. Tensions between the two countries could not have been greater as they prepared to meet each other in World Cup qualifying.
The first match was on Sunday 8th June 1969 in the national stadium in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. The El Salvador national team decided to stay as brief a time as possible and arrived on Saturday. The locals made sure their stay was as difficult as could be. Crowds gathered around their hotel and throughout the night threw stones continually at the windows. Sheets of tin were beaten with sticks and firecrackers were set off. The fans whistled and screamed. Car horns were sounded all night, all in an attempt to ensure the team got as little sleep as possible. The theory was an exhausted team would lose. The next day, the match took place and Honduras won 1-0, the only goal of the game coming deep in to stoppage time at the end of the 90 minutes. When the goal was scored, back home in El Salvador, one young woman – the 18-year-old daughter of a general – was so distraught she shot herself through the heart. The death caused outrage in El Salvador and she was given a televised funeral, her coffin draped in the national flag, followed by the national team.
This only increased tensions for the second match which took place a week later on 15th June 1969. The El Salvador fans now had the opportunity to return the ‘hospitality’ shown to their team seven days earlier. They gathered at the hotel housing the Honduras players and threw rocks, breaking all the windows. This was followed by rotten eggs and dead rats, forcing players to seek refuge on the roof of the building. The next morning, the day of the game, they were taken to the national stadium in San Salvador in armoured tanks. Before the game, the Honduran national anthem was greeted by loud whistling whilst the national flag was burned by El Salvador fans. Clearly with no sleep and terrified for their lives, they were no match for the home side and El Salvador ran out 3-0 winners. Fighting in the stands left two Hondurans dead and many injured. The team were taken straight to the airport in the same armoured cars and fans fled for the border, which was closed some hours later.
With one win each and goal difference not taken into consideration in those days, a play off match was needed on a neutral ground. This took place on 26th June in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. After 90 minutes it was 2-2, Honduras twice coming from a goal behind. The game went into extra time and Mauricio Rodriguez scored what was the winner for El Salvador in the 101st minute. Despite having 5,000 police personnel present, they were unable to prevent crowd trouble inside or outside the ground.
This was a sign of things to come and on 14th July 1969, having already severed diplomatic relations with them, El Salvador attacked Honduras. What became known as “the football war” had commenced. The war lasted for about 100 hours as under pressure from the Organisation of American States, a ceasefire was brokered on 18th July. It was a brief conflict, but 6,000 people lost their lives and another 50,000 were injured. The war wasn’t simply just because of football. Clearly their passion for the beloved game contributed on these occasions, to such death and destruction that will forever be remembered in these two countries and around the world as “the football war”.
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