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When a football match between Honduras and El Salvador was the precursor for war

Salvadorans at the country's Red Cross HQ following their return from Honduras after the 1969 war
Salvadorans at the country's Red Cross HQ following their return from Honduras after the 1969 war Credit: Alfredo Quant/AFP/Getty Images

The origins of very few wars can be boiled down to a single cause, however many do possess an identifiable spark. In the case of the 1969 “soccer war”, or “100 hours war”, between Honduras and El Salvador, that took place in a World Cup qualifying match 50 years ago.

The night before the first game on June 8 in Honduras, the El Salvador team’s hotel was surrounded by Honduran supporters setting off firecrackers, beeping car horns and creating so much noise that sleep was impossible for the visiting side. So far, so standard for a football match between Central American neighbours. In the final minute of the match, Honduras striker Roberto Cardona struck the only goal against the tiring Salvadorans. That was the spark.

According to Polish war journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Soccer War, Amelia Bolanos, an 18-year-old girl watching the game on television in El Salvador, retrieved her father’s pistol and shot herself in the heart. Bolanos became a martyr. Her funeral was televised, with the president of El Salvador, his cabinet and the football team walking behind her coffin, which was draped with a flag. There have since been suggestions that the story of Bolanos’s suicide was apocryphal but there was no doubt that tension for the second match on June 15 in San Salvador was unbearably high.

El Salvador supporters ensured they returned the favour for the first game. An assortment of dead rats and rotten eggs were thrown and smashed windows of the Hondurans’ team hotel, which was eventually set on fire. Somewhat understandably, Honduras lost 3-0. “They had their minds on getting out alive,” Honduras coach Mario Griffin said. “We’re awfully lucky that we lost.” Others were not so lucky. It is estimated that two Honduras supporters were killed and dozens more injured in rioting.

A play-off was required to determine who would advance to the final qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup. It was played on neutral territory in Mexico City on June 27. In the meantime, tensions were inflamed by the press in both countries, which reported violence on emigrants either side of the border.

There was a particularly large Salvadoran community in Honduras. With a handful of rich families owning the vast majority of land in the much smaller but densely populated El Salvador, about 300,000 peasant farmers had drifted into Honduras over the 1960s. An unpopular military junta in Honduras deliberately fostered the nativist resentment, introducing discriminatory land reform laws and then an expulsion policy. The El Salvadoran government, meanwhile, was petrified at the prospect of repatriating 300,000 listless peasants into an already overpopulated country.

With the stream of Salvadoran expulsions increasing, the day before the play-off the Salvadoran government declared a state of emergency and then, on the morning of the match, Honduras broke diplomatic relations with El Salvador. In torrential rain at the Aztec Stadium, El Salvador won 3-2 and eventually went on to qualify for their first World Cup. They would lose all three games. On July 14, war officially broke out when the Salvadoran air force started a bombing campaign in the last conflict in which piston-engined fighter planes fought each other. Although the war only lasted four days, or 100 hours, its consequences were severe. More than 2,000 people are estimated to have been killed and about 200,000 people were displaced. The return of so many Salvadoran migrants was also a contributing factor to the outbreak of the country’s brutal civil war, which claimed the lives of about 200,000 people.

Many historians hate the term “soccer war”, correctly arguing that conflict would have broken out regardless. Yet in this case the beautiful game inflamed the ugliest aspects of nationalistic fervour in both countries, making any hope of rapprochement by cooler heads impossible.