On This Date in Latin America – July 14, 1969: The El Salvador-Honduras War (A.K.A., the “Football War”) Begins

Forty-three years ago today, El Salvador and Honduras began a war that lasted 100 hours and would come to be known as the “Football War.” Although the war’s name comes from the nationalist conflicts between the two countries as embodied on the football [soccer] field, the war had its roots not in sports, but in broader social issues like land reform, migration, and regional economics.

A headline couching the athletic rivalry between Honduras and El Salvador in military terms. Though the war was named after competition on the pitch, the origins of the war rested in tensions arising from land distribution and migration patterns.

Throughout the mid-20th century, El Salvador had seen considerable industrial growth in comparison to its neighbors, including Honduras, which was on the negative end of a trade deficit with El Salvador and even had Salvadoran industrialists constructing factories in Honduras. While this could provide industrial jobs to Hondurans, it also meant most of the profits were not staying in the country. Meanwhile, industrialization of  agriculture in El Salvador had left thousands of peasants without access to land, and in search of plots on which they could eke out a living via subsistence farming, many entered Honduras, ultimately becoming squatters on government-owned land. As Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching  demonstrate, this meant that “By 1969, Salvadoran authorities estimated that between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand migrants were in Honduras, a country of only 2.5 million people.” [1]

In 1969, Honduras proposed a new land reform bill that would have ejected the Salvadoran squatters from Honduran land, and many Salvadorans faced increasing persecution and removal. El Salvador took its case to the Organization of American States, but that did not stop the migration of thousands of Salvadorans back across the country. The image of these peasants, kicked out of Honduras, led to an up-swell in nationalism in El Salvador, with politicians of all stripes ratcheting up the rhetoric and nationalist sentiment. In this context, El Salvador and Honduras were scheduled to play a soccer game as part of the qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup, to be held in Mexico.

The official logo for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

In the midst of increasing nationalism in both countries, the matches between the two came to take on titanic symbolic importance, in which the pitch served as a microcosm of each country’s assertion of superiority over the other. In June of 1969, Honduras hosted the first game in Tegucigalpa, winning 1-0 even as Salvadoran and Honduran fans in the stands, in a harbinger of things to come, got into fistfights. A week later, at a game in San Salvador, El Salvador defeated Honduras 3-0; just as the magnitude of the victory was more intense, so too was the violence between fans of the two teams during and after the game.  The two countries then held a third and final playoff match on neutral soil in Mexico City, with El Salvador ultimately winning 3-2 in extra time. On the same day that El Salvador’s national team won, the government broke off all diplomatic ties with Honduras. Over two weeks later, on 14 July 1969, El Salvador declared war on Honduras, and the Salvadoran military invaded Honduras.

The war itself was brief. While Honduras’s air force successfully defend its airspace from El Salvador’s air attack, the Salvadoran troops on the ground quickly overwhelmed the Honduran armed forces. Fearing being completely overrun, Honduras called on the Organization of American States to meet, which it did, ultimately demanding an immediate ceasefire; the two countries agreed on July 18, and just over four days after the war began, it came to a halt. By the end of August, facing economic reprisals and diplomatic isolation, El Salvador withdrew from Honduras; meanwhile, Honduras pledged to respect Salvadoran nationals in Honduras. However, the two countries continued their diplomatic border disputes over the Gulf of Fonseca for over ten years, and it was only in 1980 that the two countries finally signed a peace treaty that officially ended a war that had only lasted about 100 hours. However, despite the war’s brevity, its impact was quite real, as anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 civilians and troops died, and another 15,000 were wounded in the struggle.

Salvadoran and Honduran officers officially mark the end of the 1969 “Football War.” An official peace treaty would not arrive until 1980, more than eleven  years after a war that itself only lasted roughly 100 hours.

The economic and diplomatic fallout of the war led to the eventual disintegration of the Mercado Común Centroamericano (Central American Common Market; MCCA), and the region would not form a similar entity until the early-1990s. As for the aftereffects of the war in El Salvador and Honduras, the role of both the Salvadoran and Honduran militaries in national politics greatly increased in the wake of the war. Indeed, in El Salvador, the brief unity that the surge in nationalist sentiment had created soon fell apart. Opposition politicians and intellectuals questioned the direction of the country and the very real problems facing it, leding to growing discontent with military rule and its accomplishments (or lack thereof). Teachers, workers, and others increasingly turned further left as well, demanding greater reforms and social justice through their unionis and through other forms of public demonstration. Meanwhile, although the Salvadoran military government, with close (though not ironclad) ties to the landowning elites of El Salvador, attempted to administer some degree of reform, it was not far enough for those clamoring for reforms but too far for the country’s conservatives and agricultural elites. Throughout the 1970s, politics would further polarize, and by 1980, El Salvador was entering what would end up being a twelve-year civil war that saw systematic human rights violations and the deaths of over 75,000 people.

As for the 1970 World Cup, El Salvador’s joy over its national team making its first ever appearance in the World Cup was fleeting (though it would qualify again in 1982). The national team lost all three of its group games to the Soviet Union, Belgium, and host Mexico, with a goal differential of -9, and never scored a goal in any of the games. Brazil would go on to become the 1970 World Cup champion, the first-ever three-time champion, in a victory that Brazil’s military regime would use to drum up its own nationalist sentiment even while in the midst of the most brutal phase of military rule. But that is for another post some day.

[1] Héctor Lindo-Fuentes and Erik Ching, Modernizing Minds in El Salvador: Education Reform and the Cold War, 1960-1980, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012), p. 192.

For those interested in the connections between politics and soccer in Latin America, in addition to Lindo-Fuentes and Ching’s book, which is cited above and touches briefly on the Soccer War, see also Brenda Elsey’s excellent Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth-Century Chile.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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