Illustration by Clayton McDermott

Illustration by Clayton McDermott

Honduras v El SalvadoR:
The Games That Sparked A War

Words by William Sharp | Tw. @SHILLWARP

On the streets of Tegucigalpa, at the foot of the hotel in which the Salvadoran squad were desperately attempting to sleep, a horde of Honduran fans writhed. Armed with sheets of tin to shake and beat with sticks, rocks to aim at windows and firecrackers to follow, car horns to sound endlessly and voices primed for hours of derogative chanting, they set about making as much noise as humanly possible.

Throughout the night, the Hondurans camped outside of the hotel would surrender not a wink to the Salvadorans. Why? The following day Honduras would host El Salvador in the first of a two-legged play-off to decide who would face Haiti for a solitary place at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and, for the inhospitable hosts, this was their own unique means of preparation. Any measure that may afford their team an advantage over their Central American rivals was worth exploring.

Despite its immense sporting importance, the impending play-off wasn’t the only reason the Hondurans were so eager to make El Salvadoran lives a misery. The olive branch that once bridged the two countries had long since been torched and the flames were only growing fiercer.

El Salvador and Honduras had, by the eve of their World Cup play-off in 1969, long since found themselves embroiled in a bitter dispute regarding matters of immigration and land ownership. The country of Honduras is some five times larger than El Salvador. However, in the early 1960s, it had a population of just 2.6 million compared to El Salvador’s 3.7 million. As the nascent 20th century matured, Salvadorans poured into their neighbouring nation with increasing regularity in search of farmable land, employment, and opportunity. By the end of the decade, as many as 300,000 undocumented Salvadorans were believed to have taken up residence in Honduras, accounting for an estimated 20% of the country’s so-called ‘peasant population’.

The contemporary economic situation in Honduras was orchestrating still-growing labour conflicts and antagonising a rising wave of political unrest. Elections were held, votes were cast and victories were awarded, but no peace was found. Instead, allegations of fraud were made. Dialogue between the government and its people opened only to swiftly close once more, without the slightest hint of progress. Rifts widened and strikes broke out across the country, principally led by teachers. Searching frantically for a way of deflecting the blame, millions of accusatory eyes soon fell upon the immigrants. Their stare burned.

instead of the honduran flag, which had been burned before the eyes of the spectators, the hosts ran a dirty, tattered dishrag up the flagpole

The political situation deteriorating before them, the Honduran government came increasingly to place blame for the nation's mounting problems on the undocumented Salvadoran immigrants living throughout Honduras. This would ultimately prove to be the common ground upon which the government of Honduras and their people could congregate.

Illegal land invasions were the Salvadorans’ doing, said those atop the Honduran hierarchy. In January 1969, they publicly refused to renew the 1967 Bilateral Treaty on Immigration with El Salvador that had been designed to regulate the flow of individuals across their common border. Attacks were also launched in the media on the impact of Salvadoran immigrant labour on unemployment and falling wages across the wider Caribbean coast. Why are we fighting amongst ourselves, the Honduran government seemed to plead, when it’s all their fault.

By April, the country had begun to expel anybody who had acquired property under agrarian reform without fulfilling the legal requirement of being Honduran by birth. By late May, Salvadorans, be they migrant workers or long-term settlers, were streaming out of Honduras by the thousands; hurrying back to an already overpopulated El Salvador for fear of their livelihoods and their lives.

The month of June entered the fray on tip-toes and, on the eighth, cautiously welcomed both nations for the first of their two matches. If the hundreds of Hondurans responsible for the Salvadoran squad’s sleepless night hoped their unsporting actions would help wrestle the advantage from the away side, they were justified when their team triumphed in their inaugural meeting. A dramatic 1-0 victory; seized by an 89th-minute strike from Atlético Madrid forward José Enrique Gutiérrez Cardona.

Though they didn’t know it at the time - if urban legend proliferated by Ryszard Kapuściński, Polish journalist and author of the 1991 book The Soccer War, is to be believed - the imminent war’s very first shot was to be fired in the aftermath of that game.

Having sat on the edge of her bed, enraptured by the game being broadcast on her small television set, 18-year-old Salvadoran Amelia Bolaños could not tear herself away from the action. That was until José Cardona’s goal snatched the win for Honduras. Broken by the defeat, Bolaños is said to have run to the desk that contained her father’s pistol, raised it to her chest, and shot herself in the heart.

In the days following her suicide, Amelia Bolaños was a national hero. Her funeral televised, with an army honour guard and the president of El Salvador and his cabinet walking behind the coffin, Bolaños became the unsuspecting poster child of contemporary Salvadoran tragedy. What’s more, her image and the circumstances of her demise invigorated the nationalistic agenda throughout the nation.

When the Hondurans journeyed nervously to El Salvador for the return leg of their play-off, seven days after the tumultuous first, the Salvadorans not only gleefully returned the kind gestures that greeted their own travels but escalated them far beyond the point of civility.

The malevolent scenes that had, a week before, tarnished the streets of Tegucigalpa were, on the night of 14 June, spilling out across San Salvador, the home nation’s own capital. Screaming crowds of Salvadoran fans smashed the windows of the hotel in which the Honduran players attempted in vain to rest before their crucial decider. Through the now glassless frames, fans launched rotten eggs and dead rats. They too serenaded their rivals with vitriolic chorus long into the night.

The following day, the bloodshot-eyed Honduran team travelled to the stadium in armoured vehicles. En route, the squad passed by scores of Salvadorans who lined the roads, holding up photographs of their beloved martyr, Bolaños, and chanted of her noble sacrifice. Riots preceded the game’s formalities, during which time reports claimed three Hondurans were killed, while the Salvadoran police around the perimeter of the stadium confiscated hundreds of weapons from the most maniacally pugilistic of match-goers.

In the stadium itself, the pitch was surrounded from corner flag to corner flag by armed soldiers. When the moment came for the opposing teams’ flags to be hoisted, and the national anthems played, in place of a Honduran flag was yet another insult. “Instead of the Honduran flag, which had been burned before the eyes of the spectators, driving them wild with joy,” wrote Kapuściński, “the hosts ran a dirty, tattered dishrag up the flagpole.”

The game itself proved to be far from a fair contest. El Salvador were too much for the exhausted and emotionally ravaged Hondurans to handle and the home side ran out 3-0 victors. Despite their sizable triumph, this would not yet spell the end of their traumatising tango. Having won a game apiece, and without the benefit of an aggregate score or goal-difference ruling to separate them, the teams were made to do battle once more. This time neutral ground, the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, would play host to their final duel.

During this time, back in Honduras, Salvadorans were being dragged from their homes at night; beaten and brutalised, and driven off their own land. More than simply allowing these mob actions to crackle and spit across their nation, it was widely rumoured the Honduran government had in fact sanctioned such unjustifiable violence. Salvadorans made for the border in their droves. Not all who endeavoured to escape back to their country of birth made it.

On 26 June 1969, the day El Salvador and Honduras met in the Mexican capital to decide the winners of their 1970 World Cup play-off, El Salvador dissolved all ties with Honduras. While Salvadoran players were battling through floods of rain to fire their country to a 3-2 extra time win, Salvadoran officials were trampling over decades of diplomacy, accusing their neighbouring nation of “[doing] nothing to prevent murder, oppression, rape, plundering and the mass expulsion of Salvadorans” while stating “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.” Honduras were far from forthcoming with any response resembling an apology.

Late in the afternoon of 14 July 1969, three passenger Douglas C-47s, armed with explosives, departed El Salvador and took to the skies above the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. They were tailed by a modest fleet of F4U Corsairs, aiming their sights at Honduras’ Toncontín International Airport. It was clear the whistle had sounded on yet another battle. Once more, flanks would be utilised, shots fired, attacks mounted, but this time would be different. This time there was no pitch, no referee, no rules. This time, ‘The Football War’ had begun.