Was there Really a War Started by Football?

Football is undoubtedly the most beloved sport around the world. And for American viewers – who associate football with big shoulder pads and helmets – we mean soccer, where the ball is… a ball and the main medium with which is used to play with it are feet. For more on how soccer got that name, stick around for the Bonus Facts at the end. But for now, we are not going to stick on this etymological issue of how the sport is named. Definitely, not going to war over football… But you know who would? El Salvador and Honduras in 1969!  Well, in truth the whole event was much more complicated than a single set of football matches, but this didn’t stop the war from being dubbed “The Football War”. So what actually happened?

In 1961, a little known extremely obscure and largely forgotten footnote to history called the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. While little is known about the event today or what led up to it, after weeks of research, as far as we can dig up, we think it had something to do with cigars.

Whatever the case, after the success of Charles Xavier in ensuring Cuban cigars would still be available to most of the world, the area remained the focus of the Cold War, despite being decidedly tropical.

In this environment, Oswaldo Lopez Arellano overthrew the Hondurian government, becoming a dictator in 1963. Neighbouring countries such as Mexico and the US under Kennedy protested by removing embassies and ceasing military cooperation. But soon, under the looming shadow of various threats linked with Cuba, the US government under Lyndon B. Johnson recognised the Arellano government. Besides, amongst other things, the new dictator had done his part to soothe his relationships with the US by introducing and establishing agrarian reforms that benefited major banana companies. Yes, the quickest way to assured global peace is, as ever, big businesses all depending on their revenues and supply chains from all corners of the globe to keep on keeping on.

The main backlash from this was, of course, that farmers were not exactly happy that their bananas were given to foreigners cheap, so they went… well… bananas!

To help endear the people to him more, their dear dictator organised ‘free’ elections in 1965… that did not seem to convince anybody.

Enter the conflict with El Salvador. The machiavellian plan of Arellano was to accuse the neighbors of his own misdeeds. El Salvador is a country enjoying the breeze of the Pacific Ocean. Although theoretically rich and blessed – it was after all named to honor Jesus the Savior, or ‘salvador’ in Spanish – the country had an overpopulation problem. If one were to compare Honduras and El Salvador, El Salvador would come out much smaller, but at the same time, in the 1960s, it was far more densely populated than its neighbor.

So in previous decades – egged on by the land-owning elite – a quiet wave of immigrant farmers had begun using and farming land in Honduras. Their number, estimated around 300.000, constituted one fifth of the total Honduran population. It was at this point that the dictator Arellano went propaganda 101 on the people, and tried to solve his problems by finding a scapegoat to all the country’s ills. Taking a page out of basically every political leader ever, he chose to blame the foreigners living and working on Hondurian soil.

And so it was that the land reform implemented in 1967 redistributed land used by the immigrants to Hondurans. Often, however, these lands belonged to people who had been living there for decades, and who in some cases had integrated with Honduran families by marriage.

Despite this, many Hondurans did not care, and – supported by the government propaganda – took matters into their own hands, which inevitably led to many human rights violations and major suffering on the immigrant’s parts.

Humans are just the worst…

While the dictator was happy, his neighbors weren’t, with El Salvador demanding official intervention from the Honduran  government to resolve the issue and protect its people on Honduran soil. Beyond ethical factors, the smaller country was also not prepared to receive hundreds of thousands of immigrants given the boot or fleeing Honduras for their safety.

This brings us to football. From 12 countries of Central and North America, there was only one ticket for the 1970 World Cup finals. The winners of the four groups of the first round would play off against each other. The winners of Group 1 and 2 were USA and Haiti, the winners of Group 3 and 4 were Honduras and El Salvador respectively. They would play three matches against each other, and the first to have two victories would qualify.

The first match was played in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, on June 8, 1969. The night before the match was marked by street violence and clashes between supporters of the two teams. Some of the violence occurred near the hotel where the team of El Salvador was staying, and may have been targeted towards them. In the match, Honduras won in the most football of football ways- a show stopping 1-0.

The week after, on the 15th of June, the two teams met again in San Salvador. The El Salvadorians were not in the mood for a warm welcome and vengeful chaos and violence was observed in the streets. In this hostile environment, the Honduran team, probably fearing for their lives, lost 3-0, with one Hondurian team member noting it was a very good thing they ended up losing.

This defeat in turn aggravated the Hondurans back at home so much that reportedly 11.000 El Salvadorians were expelled from Honduras in the ten days between the second and the final match. How this compared to normal numbers isn’t clear as far as we can find, but one thing for sure was the El Salvadorian media wasn’t shy about pointing these numbers out at the time.

On the day of this tie-breaker match, El Salvador broke relations with Honduras in protest to the Honduran government, which did little to stop the violence. In this hellish atmosphere, the third match was thankfully played in the neutral stadium of Mexico City under guard of nearly 2,000 Mexican police stationed to attempt to keep the peace, all the while reportedly Salvadorian’s chanting “murderers!” at their counterparts.

And it was a nail biter. El Salvador took the lead in the 8th minute with a goal, only for Honduras to score 10 minutes later. But El Salvador scored again with in the 28th minute! The second half was calmer, with the only goal being scored by Honduras, with the match regulation time ending in another most football of football ways- 2-2, a complete waste of time!

So yes, the best possible outcome in this whole tense situation was the need for overtime!

And in the 103rd minute, El Salvador scored, giving them the ticket to the next round and disqualifying the Hondurans.

It was on! Tensions continued to mount between the two countries following the match with the outcome used by both sides in propaganda. As noted by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski who was in the region covering events in the aftermath, reporting seeing graffiti around saying things like “Nobody beats Honduras…” which we’re just going to point out here is very clearly false as El Salvador just did, so suck it Honduras! After the false statement, however, illustrating the tension, Kapuscinski notes the graffiti went on, “We shall avenge…!”

Journalist Ricardo Otero succinctly summed up the situation- “There were much bigger political matters. But there was this coincidence of three games to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. It didn’t help. Football here is very, very passionate – for good and for bad.”

Within a couple weeks political back and forth, continued violence against the immigrant populace, and occasional skirmishes finally escalated to open war and, on July 14th 1969, major military action began with El Salvador utilising their air force to invade. Of course, in the absence of proper bombers – they instead used passenger planes with explosives strapped to their sides! They managed to incapacitate the Honduran air force for a while by targeting the airports, thus gaining the initiative in the military action. Additionally, they began a land invasion, almost making it to the capital.

However, their advantage did not last for long, as the Nicaraguan dictator came to the Hondurans’ aid with provisions and their air force struck back. By morning of July 16th, their bombers were attacking both El Salvadoran air bases and – more devastatingly – oil depots along the coast.

As the Honduran government also got the Organization of American States (OAS) involved, the war was not a long one. In fact, overall, it was so brief, beyond being called the “Football War”, it also bears the moniker ‘100 Hour War’.

On July 18th, after an emergency session, the OAS called for a cease-fire and for the El Salvadorian invasion to stop immediately. While the cease-fire was put into effect by July 20th, El Salvador would not withdraw its forces completely from near the Honduran capital until August 2nd, demanding reparations be paid and protection be granted to Salvadoran immigrants living in Honduras.

In the aftermath, continued pressure enacted by the OAS ended the conflict for good. And though peace was still more than a decade away – a treaty only being signed on October 30th 1980 – the active threat ceased with the El Salvadoran troops returning to their country. In the meantime, the OAS kept a closer eye on how the immigrants in Honduras were treated, and the Honduran government also agreed to stop their persecution of said individuals.

As for other consequences, Honduras lost 250 soldiers and over 2000 civilians, additionally suffering a surge of homelessness as the fighting had caused significant destruction on Honduran soil. On the other side, 900 Salvadorans died.

Even worse, however, was the fact that the conflict caused over 300.000 Salvadorans to flee Honduras with most of them attempting to return to their native country, which was economically and socially unable to accept this many newcomers at once. Overpopulation and poverty surged, helping to lay the foundation for the military’s increased power, counteracting previous democratic movements, as well as ultimately leading to the Salvadoran Civil War raging from 1979 to 1992.

Furthermore, both economies plummeted, as trade between the two countries ceased and the border was closed. And despite the peace treaty and several attempts to sort out territory disputes, the countries remain at odds even today.

As for the football aspect, El Salvador also won against Haiti and in so doing qualified for the World Cup. Unfortunately for them, three defeats in three matches saw their country’s World Cup dreams dashed, losing 3-0 to Belgium, 4-0 to Mexico and 2-0 to the Soviet Union. Not even scoring a single goal.

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Bonus Fact:

For all you out there who love to complain when Americans, and certain others, call “Football”, “Soccer”, you should know that it was the British that invented the word and it was also one of the first names of what we now primarily know of as “Football”.

In fact, in the early days of the sport among the upper echelons of British society, the proper term for the sport was “Soccer”.  Not only that, but the sport being referred to as “Soccer” preceded the first recorded instance of it being called by the singular word “Football” by about 18 years,  with the latter happening when it became more popular with the middle and lower class. When that happened, the term “Football” gradually began dominating over “Soccer” and the then official name “Association Football”.

As to why the need for a less generic name than “football”, it turns out in the 1860s, as in most of history- with records as far back as 1004 B.C.- there were quite a lot of “football” sports in existence being played popularly throughout the world and of course, England.   Many of these sports had similar rules and eventually, on October 26th, 1863, a group of teams in England decided to get together and create a standard set of rules which would be used at all their matches.  They formed the rules for “Association Football”, with the “Association” distinguishing it from the many other types of football sports in existence in England, such as “Rugby Football”.

Now British school boys of the day liked to nickname everything.They also liked to add the ending “er” to these nicknames.  Thus Rugby was, at that time, popularly called “Rugger”.  Association Football was then much better known as “Assoccer”, which quickly just became “Soccer” and sometimes “Soccer Football”.

In the beginning, the newly standardized Rugby and Soccer were football sports for “gentlemen”, primarily being played by the upper echelons of society.  However, these two forms of football gradually spread to the masses, particularly Soccer as Rugby didn’t really catch on too well with the lower classes.  This resulted in the name switching from “Soccer” and “Association Football”, to just “Football”; with the first documented case of the sport being called by the singular term “Football” coming in 1881, 18 years after it was first called “Soccer” or, officially, “Association Football”.

The game gradually spread throughout the world under the lower class name of “Football”, rather than “Soccer” as the “gentlemen” called it.  The problem was, though, that a lot of other countries of the world already had popular sports of their own they called “Football”, such as the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, to name a few.  In these countries, the name “Soccer” was and, in some, still is preferred for this reason.

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