The Soccer War: When the World's Most Popular Sport Sparked an Ugly Conflict

The Salvadoran team, ahead of the final match against Honduras in Mexico City. BT

Soccer Sparks War

By 1969, tempers were high on both sides of the border, and rising ever higher. Salvadoran president Fidel Sanchez Hernandez then brought them to a fever pitch in his country, by publishing photos that depicted the abuses, mistreatment, and attacks suffered by Salvadorans in Honduras. It was amidst that volatile situation that ‘The Beautiful Game’ was added to the mix, acting as a catalyst and causing the bubbling tensions to boil over into open war.

In June of 1969, the Salvadoran and Honduran soccer teams met in home-and-away matches to qualify for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, to be held in Mexico the following year. The two countries’ rivalry, played out on the pitch, acted as a proxy for the higher stakes rivalry between them in real life. However, rather than act as a safety valve and diffuse some of the mounting pressure, it did the opposite and added to it. In a way, instead of soccer acting as a proxy for war, real war ended up acting as a proxy for soccer.

Fans fought at the first game, played on June 8th, 1969, in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, and won by Honduras 1-0. After the match, a young Salvadoran girl, grieving over the loss, shot herself to death. She was treated as a national heroine, and her funeral was televised, stoking emotions even higher. That spurred further violence, when the Hondurans traveled to Salvador for the second leg, played on June 15th. Honduran fans were killed, their team was forced to travel in armored cars, their hotel was egged, and a rag was flown instead of the Honduran national flag. The Salvadoran team won 3-0. Hondurans took it out on Salvadoran immigrants, ramping up the attacks against them. FIFA did not use goal differentials in those days, so a third, tie breaker game was played in Mexico City on June 27th, 1969. Salvador won 3-2, after extra time. In the aftermath, Hondurans once again attacked Salvadorans in their country.

Salvador vs Honduras on the soccer pitch. Fox Sports

That same day, the Salvadoran government severed diplomatic ties with Honduras, citing as justification the mistreatment of Salvadoran immigrants, and the failure of the Honduran government to intervene. The Salvadoran government stated that in the ten days following the June 15th match played in Salvador, nearly 12,000 Salvadorans had been forced to flee Honduras, while Honduran authorities sat on their hands and did nothing.

As El Salvador put it, there was no reason to maintain relations, since the Honduran government had “done nothing to prevent murder, oppression, rape, plundering and the mass expulsion of Salvadorans”. The Salvadorans further added that “the government of Honduras has not taken any effective measures to punish these crimes which constitute genocide, nor has it given assurances of indemnification or reparations for the damages caused to Salvadorans”. War began two weeks later, on July 14th, when the Salvadoran Air Force struck targets in Honduras.