It may seem counter-intuitive but sports can sometimes lead us to take unsporting actions. Ugly sports rivalries usually bring out nothing more than hateful online comments or maybe the odd bar fight or two. However, there was one instance, where an aggressive rivalry led to an international soccer match being the background for a violent short war. It has come to be known as the Football War.

Way back in 1969, the soccer teams of Honduras and El Salvador were fighting for a place in the 1970 FIFA World Cup. They played a series of three matches in June that year. The winner of the series booked a spot in the World Cup. Little did the players know what was transpiring behind the scenes. Honduras and El Salvador are neighboring states in Central America. They had a history of disputes with each other, including border disputes. So they were not the best of friends. During the 1960s, the biggest bone of contention between them was the presence of migrants from Salvador into Honduras.

Geographically, El Salvador has a lot less territory than Honduras. Most of the land there is owned by elites from landlord families. This meant there were limited employment opportunities for Salvadoran farmers in their own country. So they opted to seek employment in Honduras, which had far more land available for farming. As a result, over 300,000 Salvadorans migrated to Honduras. The authorities in Honduras then introduced land reforms, which forced Salvadorans to move back to their own country. This escalated tensions between the two states around the time the soccer series was being played.

Despite the tensions and chance of conflict, both teams decided the series should go on as planned. The first game was played in Honduras. The home team won that game 1-0. The second game was played in El Salvador. The home team scored a comfortable 3-0 victory. The playing environment was not at all pleasant. There were reports of rioting and intimidation of the visiting team in both countries. The series decider was played on June 27, 1969, at a neutral venue. Estadio Azteca in Mexico City to be precise. El Salvador won that game 3-2 in extra time and booked their spot in the following year’s World Cup.

Both countries snapped their diplomatic relations on the day of the decider. Although the soccer series was not the main reason for this, it may have been the trigger that led them to cut ties with each other. Within a couple of weeks, on July 14, 1969, hostilities broke out between the two countries. El Salvador launched an offensive against Honduras, using P-51 Mustangs from the Second World War era. Salvador had access to more superior weaponry. However, their advance inside Honduras was hindered by limited ammunition as well as resistance from the Honduran civilians. Honduras launched a counter-offensive, but they also lacked the military supplies necessary for such a war.

A couple of days later, on July 18, the Organization of American States (OAS) brokered a ceasefire. The Football War, AKA the 100 Hour War, concluded with nearly 3,000 casualties. Most of the casualties were Honduran civilians.

Whenever this conflict is discussed, the role played by the soccer series is often highlighted. It is right there in the name of the war. But some historians believe the role of soccer in this conflict might be overstated. The media in both countries at the time focused their coverage on the sporting rivalry. They referred to the third match as the “Soccer War” before hostilities broke out between the two countries. There is a consensus amongst scholars that the war would have happened regardless of the soccer series. There is even a misconception that the tense political relations between the two led the organizers to stage the third match in Mexico. However, the venue for that match had been decided well in advance.

Tensions remained high between both countries after the war. The status quo remained the same as neither side gained or lost any land. 10 years later, a civil war broke out in El-Salvador that lasted 12 years. El Salvador went on to play in the 1970 FIFA World Cup, where they were knocked out in the first round after losing all three of their group matches.

Summing Up

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