In the summer of 1969, the nations of Honduras and El Salvador went to war.
Tragically, nations do go to war, so this in and of itself isn’t unusual.
However, the spark which ignited this war was unlike any other in world history.
It had to do with a qualifying match for the 1970 FIFA World Cup.
Learn more about the Football War, its causes, and its resolution on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Football War, also known as the Soccer War for obvious reasons, might have been sparked by a football match, but there was a lot more to it.
A football match wasn’t so much the cause of the war as it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There were a host of problems between the two countries, which had been festering well before their 1969 World Cup qualifier.
The problem really started over two centuries ago when Honduras and El Salvador were still Spanish colonies.
There were six pockets of land and two islands in the Gulf of Fonseca that were awarded to El Salvador that Honduras claimed. The Gulf of Fonseca is the only access that Honduras has to the Pacific Ocean, and El Salvador was able to block their access.
The total amount of land in question was 436.9 square kilometers, which wasn’t inconsequential given the sizes of the countries.
However, if a land dispute was the only problem between the two countries, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to go to war in 1969. The border had been an issue for ages, so it was definitely a contributing factor, but not the case of the war.
The other major problem between the two countries had to do with immigration and land reform.
Despite being five times larger in area, Honduras had a much smaller population. In 1969, El Salvador had a population of 3.7 million, and Honduras had 2.6 million people.
Starting in the early 20th century, the differences in population density resulted in Salvadorans migrating to Honduras for land.
By 1969, 300,000 Salvadorans were living in Honduras, compromising 20% of the population.
If you remember back to my episode on banana republics, most of the land in Honduras was owned by large landowners such as the United Fruit Company.
That meant there wasn’t much land available in the country for the common folk.
In 1962, Honduras introduced land reforms that allowed the Honduran government to seize land settled by Salvadoran immigrants and squatters and give it to native Hondurans. The land reforms led to a surge of nationalism in Honduras.
Even if Salvadoran immigrants had purchased their land legally and held title to it, they were still liable to have their land taken from them.
The land seizures resulted in thousands of Salvadorans being expelled from Honduras and forced to migrate back to El Salvador.
The influx of returning Salvadorans caused huge headaches and problems for the Salvadorian government and for the populace.
On top of all this, there were just general simmering social issues between the two countries. Despite the migration of Salvadorans to Honduras, the standard of living in El Salvador was higher than in Honduras. This led to a sense of inferiority among Hondurans and resentment towards Salvadorans.
So this was the state of affairs between the two countries heading into June 1969.
Both El Salvador and Honduras were first in their qualifying groups for the 1970 World Cup. Honduras beat Costa Rica, and Jamaica and El Salvador beat Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles.
The two countries had to play each other in a two-leg qualifier to determine which team would advance to the world cup.
This was a big deal because neither country had ever played in the world cup before, and the qualifier was between regional rivals.
The first game took place in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, on June 8. Tensions between the two countries were running high.
The Salvadoran team couldn’t get any sleep the night before the match because Honduran fans camped outside their hotel all night and made noise.
Honduras barely won the first game, 1-0, scoring the game’s only goal with one minute remaining.
The Salvadorians took this loss hard. An 18-year-old girl by the name of Amelia Bolaños took her father’s pistol and shot herself in the heart after the game.
The President of El Salvador, Fidel Sánchez Hernández, declared her a national martyr. Her funeral was shown on national television, and the president and his cabinet walked behind the coffin in a procession.
The death of Amelia Bolaños and the subsequent funeral only fueled passions on the Salvadoran side before the second match.
The second match took place a week later, on June 15, in San Salvador.
The Salvadoran fans did the same thing to the Honduran team at their hotel that the Honduran fans did to the Salvadoran team. Fans were so riotous that the Honduran team had to be transported to the stadium in armored cars.
In riots that took place before the game, three people were killed. The Honduran flags were burned, and Honduran fans in the crowd were beaten by locals.
El Salvador won the match 3-0. The Honduran coach said that the team was lucky to lose. If they had won, they might not have left with their lives.
This set up a third game which took place in a neutral location, Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, on June 27.
Mexico City government put 1,700 police in the stands to prevent any violence from breaking out.
However, earlier that day, things began to go beyond sports. Just hours before the match, the El Salvador government broke off diplomatic ties with Honduras.
The Salvadorans claimed that since the last game in San Salvador, almost 12,000 Salvadorans were forced out of Honduras and were victims of theft, rape, and murder. The expulsions were believed to be directly due to Honduras losing the previous match.
In a statement, the government said, “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.”
During the game, Salvadoran fans chanted “murderer, murderer.”
In the game itself, El Salvador won 3-2 with a goal scored by Mauricio “Pipo” Rodríguez in the 11th minute of extra time.
In the days following the game in Mexico City, tensions rose on the border of Honduras and El Salvador. The border was closed, and clashes increased between the military forces on both sides.
Finally, in the early morning of July 14, El Salvador ordered its forces to invade Honduras.
The Salvadoran attack was multipronged.
The land invasion took place primarily along the main road connecting El Salvador and Tegucigalpa. There was also another thrust north in the western part of the country.
By sea, Salvadoran forces attacked Honduran islands in the Gulf of Fonseca.
The small El Salvador air force attacked positions in Honduras. They even used civilian airplanes with explosives attached to the wings as bombers.
The Salvadoran military was bigger than the Honduran military and overwhelmed them in the first hours of the war.
They actually made it to within several miles of Tegucigalpa.
However, the Salvadoran advance stalled out, and Honduras went on the counterattack.
They hit Salvadoran oil facilities, which interrupted fuel supplies to the advancing forces.
Both sides had piston-powered, American-built aircraft which fought each other in dogfights. In the air, the Hondurans had the edge and destroyed most of the Salvadoran air force.
It was the last time in military history that propeller aircraft fought each other.
The international reaction to the war was swift. The Organization of American States held an emergency meeting on July 18 and called for an immediate cease-fire and for El Salvador to pull back their troop to its border. A cease-fire was agreed to on the evening of July 18, ending hostilities.
The entire war lasted four days and also became known as the 100-hour war.
The ceasefire became formalized on July 20th, and El Salvador began to remove its troops from Honduras on August 2 after threats of economic and trade sanctions and promises by Honduras that Salvadorans in Honduras would be treated better.
Despite the war being extremely short, it had significant implications.
Over 300,000 Salvadorans were uprooted and displaced.
El Salvador had 900 people killed, including civilians. Honduras had 250 soldiers killed and over 2,000 civilian deaths.
While the conflict was over, the animosity between the countries lingered. The border was closed, and trade was cut off for years.
The instability in El Salvador was a major contributing factor in its civil war a decade later, which took the lives of 80,000 people.
It wasn’t until 1980 that a formal peace treaty was signed between the two countries. In 1992, the International Court of Justice arbitrated the border disputes between the two countries, awarding 80% of the disputed land to Honduras.
The Gulf of Fonseca is still a contentious issue. In 2013, El Salvador once again threatened military action once again against Honduras.
As for the Salvadoran football team, they did qualify for the world cup in 1970, but they didn’t win a single game or even score a single goal.
Mauricio Rodríguez, the man who scored the winning goal against Honduras in the decisive third game, is often considered to be the man whose goal started a war.
The truth is, while the war is called the Football War, and while the matches did escalate the conflict, it probably would have happened even if the matches never took place. The only reason a football match sparked the war was because there was plenty of dry tinder to catch fire.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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