Take yourself back to 1969. Richard Nixon is the new President of the United States, John Lennon is spending an increasing amount of time in bed, Thunderclap Newman are top of the charts and, in a far-flung corner of Central America, El Salvador and Honduras do battle in what has come to be known as the ‘Soccer War’.
The cultural, political and historical narrative that lay behind the fleeting conflict was complex, but both countries had been locked into a series of economic and social disputes along their shared border for the best part of three decades. A dispute that had immigration at its heart, swathes of Salvadorean citizens had been crossing over into Honduras in a bid to escape the crowded and shockingly unequal society of their country of origin.
Indeed, by the start of 1969 nearly half a million landless peasants had illegally entered Honduras in search of work, something which greatly angered a Honduran government under increasing pressure to stem the tide of human traffic. By the time the two countries came to face each other in a three-match series to determine qualification for the 1970 World Cup, the political tension of the situation was approaching a state of extreme tension.
Ahead of the first match, played in the Honduran city of Tegucigalpa on 8th June, the El Salvador squad were prevented from sleeping at their hotel by riotous fans as both the public and the military made life extremely difficult for the unfortunate visiting players. The Salvadoreans, unsurprisingly, lost 1-0 with Honduras’ goal coming deep, deep into injury time at the end of the second half. A woman in El Salvador reportedly committed suicide, such was her grief at the result, and her funeral was broadcast to the nation in an effort to stoke the fire of nationalist sentiment.
The second game of the three, played in San Salvador a week later on 15th June, saw the stakes raised yet further. The Honduran team were subjected to the same treatment that had been meted out to their opponents in Tegucigalpa, the windows of their hotel being smashed, dead animals thrown into their rooms and racist vitriol directed at the squad’s black players. Before the game, which El Salvador eventually won 3-0, the Honduran flag had been burnt and then raised in the stadium, the visitors’ national anthem drowned out by the baying masses. The atmosphere was thoroughly poisonous.
Honduran fans and the country’s consulates in El Salvador were brutally attacked after the game, with retaliatory violence taking place across the border. The two states immediately broke off all diplomatic relations as the situation quickly descended towards all-out war. Two weeks later El Salvador invaded Honduras and six days of disorganised, chaotic and brutal fighting (6,000 people are thought to have been killed or injured as a result) began as the Salvadorean air force bombed Honduran infrastructural targets.
By 15th July, a day after their country had finally clinched World Cup qualification with a 3-2 win over Honduras at a neutral venue in Mexico City, the Salvadorean army had taken eight towns and made huge inroads into enemy territory. However, almost as quickly as it had begun, the conflict was brought to an end with a ceasefire agreement on 20th July. Although it would eventually take more than a decade for full diplomatic relations to be restored, the ‘Soccer War’ was over as Salvadorean troops withdrew from Honduras on 2nd August.
A year later El Salvador made their first appearance at a World Cup, finding themselves completely out of their depth as they suffered three defeats at the hands of Belgium (3-0), Mexico (4-0) and the Soviet Union (2-0).
These days relations between the two countries are significantly improved, with Honduras enjoying the stronger footballing development at present. La Bicolor’s appearance at this summer’s World Cup demonstrated just how far football has progressed in Central America, the socio-political wounds inflicted on the region by the brief ‘Soccer War’ of 1969 having been assuaged by the healing hands of time.