The Football War: How A World Cup Qualifier Ignited A Barbaric Conflict

Look no further than the Christmas Day truce of 1914, to see how the beautiful game has often provided unity, solace and sanctuary, to those crestfallen by conflict. However, in 1969, in the wayward midsts of Central America, football became the antagonistic incendiary to a sabre-rattling atrocity between Honduras and El Salvador, known fashionably and facetiously as ‘The Football War’.

Long before the barbaric bloodshed began in 1969, apprehension had fiercely escalated between Honduras and it’s diminutive, yet densely over-populated neighbour, El Salvador. For decades, Salvadoran peasants had inundated the comparative employment haven of Honduras, settling in their thousands. However, an abhorrent military coup d’état, in 1963, exacerbated the country’s ubiquitous poverty and the 300,000 strong convoy of Salvadoran peasants, were callously attributed culpability.

Denoted as an encumbrance by Honduran media, accountable for the country’s dwindling wages and escalating unemployment, civil agitation became rife. The elitist anti-Salvadoran land-owners amalgamated, pressuring the president to protect their property rights, and thus a land reform act was born. By 1969, land illegally occupied by Salvadorans had been redistributed to native Hondurans, thousands remorselessly exiled and dozens inhumanely persecuted and brutalised; prompting further floods of Salvadorans to abscond.

A two-legged CONCAF playoff, in the summer of 1969, between the bellicose nations, for a final position in the 1970 World Cup, ultimately proved to be the final combustable component in their adjacent antipathy.

The first-leg, played in Honduras on 8 June 1969, saw the home side snatch a last-minute victory, inciting riots between the fans. However, the return leg, in the Salvadoran capital, was eclipsed by it’s deplorable brutality. On the eve of the game, the Honduran team hotel was set ablaze, while dead rats and rotten eggs were tossed through the windows. At the game, Honduran fans were barbarically belaboured, the players admittedly fearing for their lives and riots besieging the streets.

In the ten days that followed, tens of thousands of Salvadorans were forced to flee Honduras, incapacitated by the savagery of the repugnant Hondurans. On the day of the deciding play-off, to be held in Mexico City, El Salvador ended all diplomatic relations with Honduras stating that it had, “done nothing to prevent murder, oppression, rape, plundering and the mass expulsion of Salvadorans.” El Salvador won the crucial decider 3-2 in extra-time, in a game that was itself extraordinary, but the forthcoming violence and ensuing war had already been incited.

On July 14th, El Salvador emphatically retaliated with a series of devastating air raids on Honduras, temporarily decimating their air force. Their infantry rapidly advanced into Honduras, forcing the Hondurans back over 8km, taking nine of their cities and swiftly approaching the capital. The Honduran air force eventually responded, obliterating oil depots across the Salvadoran coastline, with aid from the neighbouring Nicaraguan dictatorship, swiftly halting the Salvadoran momentum due to their diminished fuel supplies.

Eventually, a laborious ceasefire was negotiated between the two sides to end the war, El Salvador succumbing to withdrawing its troops, on condition that the Salvadorans, who still remained in Honduras, would receive ample protection. The diplomatic ties between the two adversaries weren’t properly restored for over a decade.

The ‘Football War’ lasted 100 hours, took 6,000 lives, rendered 50,000 homeless, and displaced 300,000 Salvadorans. Despite their infamous extra-time victory, El Salvador would go onto to lose each of their three group games at the 1970 World cup. Football, the transcendent source of nationalistic pride; the final inflammatory integrant in the hellish and harrowing conflict.