Written in 2009 by Yuriy Veytskin, Claire Lockerby and Steven McMullen
Edited and updated in 2013 by Matthew Schorr, Lindsey Barrett and Colby Leachman
While often recognized as a dramatic game that elicits intense emotions, an equal combination of sport and theater, and a key way to understand society, soccer is still underestimated as a force and platform for political unrest. One salient example of the game’s ability to directly impact global politics is the armed conflict between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969–the so-called “Soccer War.” Although three 1969 World Cup qualifying matches (for the 1970 Mexico City World Cup) were the spark that ignited the conflict, the war stemmed from tensions much deeper than sport alone. In particular, a combination of border disputes and class tensions that existed for several years before the 1969 matches set the stage for the war. The three matches that were played in June 1969 served as “the catalyst which helped to ignite an already inflammable situation.” Author Eduardo Galeano sums up the tension that spilled over from the matches into greater society: “Soccer, metaphor for war, at times turns into real war.” The Soccer War is thus a bloody reminder that the implications of sport can reach far beyond the field.
The aggressive physicality of football can often lead to hostility among fans, and the Football War is no exception; it is an example of nationalistic football fervor quickly escalating into nationalistic violence. Rowdy fans from both nations started post-game riots that helped push their armies into a war that had been on the precipice of eruption for years. While foreigners often dismissed the conflict as mere rioting after an emotionally charged sporting event, the seriousness of the crisis was made clear on July 14, 1969, when Salvadoran planes dropped bombs on the airport in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, effectively declaring war on neighboring Honduras. Four days later, most of the fighting in the “100 Hours War” had ceased, but the ramifications of the conflict remained for decades.
As soccer aficionado John Turnbull put it, “Football is a game of contested space.”; in Honduras and El Salvador, this truism extends beyond the pitch. The issue of space is relevant in the context of the Soccer War because Honduras is about five times as large as El Salvador in square mileage. In 1969, Honduras had a population of 2,333,000 in 1969, compared to El Salvador’s 3,000,000. The overcrowding in El Salvador resulted in a decline in quality of life for a large number of Salvadoran citizens, and many spilled over to nearby Honduras, which was less densely populated. These immigrants began to take jobs as factory workers and cultivators of previously barren land. A growing resentment began to emerge among many rural Hondurans, who witnessed Salvadoran immigrants in their communities holding jobs and profiting off of the land. Both governments tried to stem the tide of unauthorized immigration and resultant border disputes by reestablishing the border between the two countries; however, a string of treaties intended to solve the problem were met with public contempt. The last of these treaties, the Bilateral Treaty on Immigration, though defunct by 1967, endures in popular memory as resentment is still felt by both sides.
By the time that the first qualifying match took place between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, there were 300,000 Salvadoran immigrants living and working in Honduras. This considerable immigrant population accounted for approximately 20% of Honduras’s peasant population. As border disputes continued to simmer and resentment towards the Salvadoran workers grew, soccer matches between the two countries were poised to arouse nationalist passions that would escalate the conflict and provoke a war.
Before any of the games had even begun, there was hostility between fans due to the recent border disputes. According to reports, “the El Salvadorian side were kept up all night by riotous fans outside their hotel.” The first of the three World Cup qualifying matches took place in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. The game went through the 90th minute without either team scoring. Late in overtime, Honduras finally scored a goal to win the game. Fans immediately started rioting and fighting in the stands at the stadium. Some onlookers even reported that the stadium was set ablaze. The fans on the Salvadoran side were angered by the Honduran victory, and their dissatisfaction that was compounded by the Salvadoran media, which used the game to create “a point of national honor.” After the match, reports surfaced about the suicide of a Salvadoran woman at the conclusion of the game. The Salvadoran media covered the death in detail and showed the funeral on national television. Through this arguably propagandistic and jingoistic coverage, Salvadoran media galvanized antipathy against the Honduran soccer team and the entire Honduran nation.
The events leading up to the second match suggest that the Salvadoran media had effectively infuriated the Salvadoran people. When the Honduran team reached the airport in El Salvador, they were immediately accosted by hordes of Salvadoran fans. Fans singled out Honduras’s star player, Enrique “the Rabbit” Cardona, and held up posters of him being beaten by a rabbit. The night before the game, General José Alberto Medrano led fans of El Salvador in a riotous march through the streets, hoping to disturb the Honduran team’s sleep and affect their performance the next day. At the end of the night, two men lay dead in the street, “and seven persons were injured by the police.” Hondurans bemoaned the street violence, “their women defiled, their menfolk assaulted and the national flag desecrated.” At some point in the night, the Honduran players were escorted out of the hotel and taken to safety at their own embassy.
During the match the next day, the effects of the previous night’s riots were manifested on the pitch. Hidden in an undisclosed location before the match, the players were tired and feared for their lives. During the pregame ritual, Honduras’s flag was not flown– in a show of spite, the Salvadorans hung a rag to which the Hondurans sung their national anthem. As expected, El Salvador dominated the match, scoring three goals in 4 minutes by Juan Ramón Martínez, Elmer Acevedo, and Juan Ramón Martínez respectively. After the match, the Salvadorans celebrated uproariously. There were riots in the streets, but this time out of jubilation rather than loathing. Honduran star Enrique Cardona recalls that “We’re awfully lucky that we lost. Otherwise we wouldn’t be alive today.”
After the first couple matches, violence continued as local gangs in Honduras terrorized Salvadoran settlers, trying to drive them out of neighborhoods and back into El Salvador. If the settlers refused to leave, Hondurans burned their houses to the ground. The Salvadoran media did not take kindly to this turn of events: one Salvadoran newspaper reporting these events stated, “El Salvador should civilize Honduras by force.” In response to the unrest and menace of violence, Salvadorans began to stream back across the border into El Salvador. Overall, an estimated 17,000 refugees fled Honduras for the safety of their homeland. As tensions and violence grew on both sides, war became increasingly inevitable.
With the first two matches clouded by such intense violence, soccer administrators decided to hold the third match in Mexico to lessen the any chance of further aggression between the two nations. Before the final match, Argentine Gregorio Bundio, coach of the El Salvador side, was called into the Salvadoran president’s home. The president told him that he “had to defend the national colours, because this match was for our national dignity.” The pressure for both sides to perform well on the neutral Mexican pitch with the world’s eyes upon them was immense. Once again, the match went well into overtime. El Salvador struck first, with goals in the 10th and 29th minutes scored by Juan Ramón Martínez, and Honduras answered with two goals to tie the game. Both sides exhibited a fierce desire to win– the defense was so intense that, when recalling the game, Cardona exclaims, “They kicked me off the pitch!” José Antonio Quintanilla of El Salvador finally scored the winning goal in the 101st minute. After this victory diplomatic relations were broken off by each government, the first steps towards war.
On July 14, 1969, the “Soccer War” officially began when three El Salvadoran fighter aircrafts made an incursion into Honduran airspace. Soon afterward, the Salvadoran army made immediate advances towards the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and launched attacks on the main road connecting the two countries. Better equipped than its Honduran counterpart, the Salvadoran army pushed easily ahead. The advance continued with the capture of Nueva Ocotepeque, a city in southwest Honduras, but the Salvadoran army then “began to encounter stiff resistance.” A combination of inclement weather, resistance by Honduran citizens, and lack of ammunition caused the Salvadoran offensive to grind to a halt. The Honduran air force retaliated with strategic bombings of oil refineries and major power centers of El Salvador. With both sides running out of ammunition, a ceasefire was eventually called by the Organization of American States (OAS) and went into effect on July 20th. Both sides suffered losses of over 2,000, extreme given the brief duration of the war. More than 100,000 Salvadorans were displaced by the conflict, a shift with profound effects on the Honduran economy; those displaced left a chasm in the markets where they once participated actively. Most of the casualties on the Honduran side were citizens who took part in resisting the advances of the Salvadoran troops.
Many people did not even remotely understand the true social and political causes of the war. Juan Luis Gutierrez, a Honduran soldier who fought in the conflict, says, “We soldiers didn’t have a clue. We went to war not knowing what we were fighting for or why. They just told us to defend the national sovereignty.”  Through the use of media propaganda, which evoked national emotions and pride, both countries were able to convince their respective citizens that sovereignty was at stake and that there was a legitimate reason to fight this war. The war may not have been caused by the soccer matches directly, but it is a prime example of how the emotions and violence stirred up in the games can easily spill over from the pitch onto the streets.
The overarching mystery of this conflict is why it spread beyond the diplomatic arena and how armed aggression was both easily conducted and justified. The answer lies in the propaganda campaigns fueled by both nations. While Latin American integration and international incorporation into the Central American Common Market have always been underlying objectives in Latin American history, the Football War and its propaganda schemes served as a harsh departure from such goals and illustrated the volatility inherent in Latin American relations. The propaganda campaigns willingly prevented peace settlements that would have been instrumental in the restoration of the Central American Common Market.
The propaganda campaigns during the Football War alluded to three key principles. The newspapers and government understood that being a supporter of football is intrinsically an act of micro-nationalism. International football then magnifies this micro-nationalism on the grand stage of the World Cup qualifying matches. Finally, football is centered on the ideas of deprivation and frustration, which propaganda can easily fuel for a national cause. Unlike in American sports, where points are generally scored at a frenetic pace, football is based on denial and thus acts as a microcosm of dispossession and denial. Considering the territorial disputes between Honduras and El Salvador and the denial and depravity of adequate land from Salvadorans, it is easy to recognize how the propaganda campaigns gained traction so easily in neighboring countries.
The media campaign can be traced all the way back to the Honduran farmers. Thousands of Salvadorans moved from El Salvador, their homeland, into the neighboring territory of Honduras for the temptation of deeply discounted land. In 1966, with hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans living in Honduras, the most prominent Honduran land owners–enraged at this rapid Salvadoran influx–formed the National Federation of Farmers and Livestock-Farmers of Honduras. These farmers were intent on protecting their own interests and land for exclusive Honduran use and were able to receive government backing.
The National Federation of Farmers successfully pressured the government of President Oswaldo López Arellano, who had seized power through military coup, to deploy a government-sponsored propaganda campaign whose goal was to advance the farmers’ cause. As an unexpected byproduct, the campaign heightened general Honduran nationalism among the population. Hondurans, overcome with national pride, began indiscriminately attacking Salvadoran immigrants. As the situation deteriorated, these initial acts of violence escalated to alleged beatings, torture, and lynchings reported in local newspapers.
Attempts to mollify the issue of immigration through agreements and reforms were met with contempt and mounting tension, exacerbated by the adoption of a new Honduran agrarian reform law in 1969 that deprived El Salvadoran campesinos of their farms and livelihoods. The agrarian reform law had been avoided up to that point because of Honduras’ “capacity to absorb El Salvador’s surplus” population. The legislation compelled the seizure of land from Salvadoran immigrants and reallocated it among native-born Hondurans, further enraging the Salvadoran citizens and government.
Another component of the propaganda campaign was graffiti. Graffiti is, in many ways, the greatest social commentary and serves as a derivative of the media, revealing the depth of national pride. The wonderful element of graffiti is that it is a civilian-owned activity. Regardless of police surveillance or draconian law decrees, citizens will always find a way of expressing themselves through graffiti, for the government cannot patrol and detain every single person or group in every location of either nation at every time of the day. Further, as long as graffiti is visible to even one other person, the message will have been conveyed successfully, as a trickling domino effect often ensues. Graffiti is almost always used to express or suggest messages for which no one would pointedly take ownership. That is the beauty of graffiti; it is an anonymous catalyst for change, and is a perfect conduit to swell national pride. If one considers the startling reality that, on both sides of the border, citizens of each country were often rounded up and put into national stadia which served as prison camps, it is easy to imagine how graffiti can muster a crowd into action and, ultimately, marshal troops to war.
Honduras and El Salvador were certainly not the only countries involved in the virulent propaganda campaigns. In his message to the nation, President Sanchez charged that Honduras “had incited the Salvadoran people to insurrection, with the cooperation of the radio of the Cuban Government.” The Honduran radio attacked the “14 families” of El Salvador alleged to control most of his [President Sanchez’s] nation’s limited wealth, and Radio Havana has taken up the attack on the “oligarchy” of Honduras. Hence, even the Cuban media intervened in the Football War, siding with El Salvador against the Honduran radio.
However, it is important to note that coffee, the backbone of El Salvador’s economy, has always been in the hands of El Salvador’s richest families, the “Fourteen”. They also owned most of the factories that sprang up during the past decade of industrial growth. Few of the benefits of this economic development trickled down to the mass population of 3.5 million, but the hierarchy had historically been structured this way and any sociopolitical shift would have been unprecedented. Radio Havana took advantage of a long-standing, stagnant situation that had been historically resistant to change in an attempt to provoke demonstrations.
“To add to the explosive brew, rich Honduran landowners used the Salvadoran immigrants as an easy target, scapegoating them as the villains whenever the landowners were challenged about the great imbalance of land ownership in Honduras.” As a result, “Honduras began to expel large numbers of Salvadorans. The Salvadoran press seized this and created a fury about the mistreatment of Salvadorans by the Hondurans.”
While both nations developed official policies in response to the crisis, the nations’ government-backed media campaigns pitted themselves against one another. By 1968, a Honduran propaganda campaign was set on limiting the consumption of other Central American commodities in order to bolster national production. The following message appeared in late 1968:
By June 1969, the tone of the propaganda became overtly anti-Salvadoran:
Through the implementation of these restrictive trade policies, both nations gradually wound one another in a tight bind. These national policies deteriorated into propaganda campaigns, and the solution to the regional crisis was found in even more widespread press campaigns. In Honduras, the anti-Salvadoran program mollified mass aggressiveness by funneling it towards the enemy. These campaigns were at first permitted and then openly encouraged by the governments. Both nations were waiting for the straw to break the camel’s back so that a negligible event could be blown out of proportion and incite emotions in ways previously unimaginable. The Salvadoran mass media took advantage of anti-Salvadoran skirmishes that occurred in Honduras to aggravate the mood of soccer fanatics back in El Salvador and exploit those emotions into tangible action. Nor was the timing of this new approach coincidental; a soccer game between the two nations was scheduled to be played on June 8 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
At the time, television sets were rare in most Central American countries; almost all found their news through daily newspapers. As a result, the written word “takes on a kind of sacred character” of truth since much of the population was not well educated. Teams of the two fragile nations first met for a best-of-three-game series on the field in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on June 8, 1969 for the World Cup eliminations. The Salvadoran team was serenaded endlessly by the crowd during their stay in Tegucigalpa. El Salvador, which lost by a score of 1-0 in extra time, felt cheated, with the loss a burnishment of “national honor.” When the Honduran team revisited San Salvador for a return match, tensions were came to the fore as riots erupted downtown, claiming San Salvadoran casualties.
The goal of the match was clear: “to create conditions for revenge on the Honduran soccer players” and their entourage at the match in San Salvador just a few days later on June 15. Although this goal was not advertised, it nonetheless had the triumphant effect of stimulating anti-Honduran sentiment within El Salvador. When the Salvadorans returned to their homeland, they both expanded and served the underhanded purposes of their government, in whom their allegiance was placed. “The many details of the humiliations suffered by the Salvadorans in Honduras served to intensify anew national animosity, involving even more the masses in a national unity directed against Honduras. The idea of a primitive war against those perpetrating genocide was already falling on fertile ground.” Salvadoran President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez angrily criticized the acts of violence against Honduran citizens and blamed “communist and subversive elements.” Honduras retaliated with bravado by circulating unsubstantiated print media claiming Honduran prisoners in San Salvador, triggering a rash of attacks in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula and provoking another wave of refugees back into El Salvador.
The aftermath of the second football match was a large concentration of Salvadorans frantically fleeing Honduras as the Honduran press blew negligible incidents out of proportion, “alleging maltreatment and property confiscation” and triggering the crisis on June 15, 1969. The Honduran press and radio launched a “virulent anti-Salvadoran campaign” that contributed to the previously mentioned agrarian reform program that granted government land allocation only to “Hondurans by birth.”
Two days before this second match, Honduras sealed its borders against the flow of Salvadorans, and by natural response, on June 26 El Salvador ended all diplomatic relations with Honduras. On the same day, El Salvador commenced a diplomatic campaign with the Organization of American States and in the U.N. aimed not at “resolving the conflict peacefully but at demonstrating that Honduras was violating human rights, was committing the crime of genocide, and was attacking the borders of El Salvador with military skirmishes and aerial attacks.” Naturally, international relations became insolvent as demonstrations continued to be held and border skirmishes intensified amid these bold accusations.
The diplomatic actions of the Salvadoran government suggest that El Salvador intended to pursue a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Rather, the El Salvadoran government used the international diplomatic forum for justification of armed aggression. As a result, on July 3, the war was looming. The Salvadoran army had purposefully organized a border incident in El Poy, branded Honduras as the aggressor, and “succeeded in giving more power to the masses,” an act that was deemed unprecedented.
Thus the propaganda campaigns transcended simple messages and local newspaper articles in compelling citizens into action. Propaganda led to drastic changes in domestic policy, as demonstrated by the Honduran agrarian reform act of 1969 in response to the heavy influx of Salvadorans. Propaganda provoked the strategic bombing of pivotal petroleum refineries in El Salvador; it justified repressive military control measures; it obscured the problem of population growth. It led to the installation, by the OAS, of a force of military observers to patrol the common border.
Propaganda regimes generated the real cause of the war, political nationalism, and both governments fueled the fire until, diplomatically, the situation spun out of control. Propaganda caused El Salvador’s army to invade Honduras to “save” victimized Salvadoran immigrants from “atrocities,” as the newspapers and leaders reported. In many ways, propaganda acted as the most fundamental catalyst for the war itself. The Football War is the only one of its kind, but its origins and ramifications are common to many other historical conflicts.
The campaigns, particularly those of El Salvador, were brilliant in the sense that the press was only one factor in arousing animosity. Other tools were used in the global environment to catapult animosity into measurable action and diplomacy. One of these tools was the ability to influence the OAS, which was already being harshly criticized for its lack of mediation in the crisis. El Salvador created conditions of revenge by exploiting the game held in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, but this was relatively easy since the San Salvadoran masses were easily impressionable and ready to strike, based on past occurrences, regardless of the match results. Even if El Salvador had won, the pieces of the puzzle were already in place for rioting when the Honduran team arrived in San Salvador.
Furthermore, the fact that El Salvador never favored peaceful conflict resolution suggests that the government was pleased with the direction of its propaganda campaigns. The Salvadoran government’s next step was to manipulate the OAS as a pawn to rationalize armed aggression against Honduras. Even the Honduran chancellor protested the events to his Salvadoran counterpart, citing that the “mental and physical well-being of the National Football Team of Honduras” was being compromised. Only after this calculated protest did the OAS casually launched an investigation, calling for the Subcommittee on Human Rights to visit Honduras and verify the alleged brutal aggressions, profound offenses, and serious crimes to which the propaganda alluded. El Salvador never even favored peace settlements in the first place. El Salvador was content with its position of labeling Honduras as the aggressor because such an accusation would eventually bring in the OAS, however dilatory the OAS may be.
Ultimately, the reason that the propaganda campaigns were so effectivw in Honduras and El Salvador is that the accusations trickled downward from a central source, the leader of the nation, rather than from a disparate group of local media outlets. This allowed the propaganda to be uniform and consistent, rather than conflicting. Centralization of power also allowed for effective propaganda because the president was also the general of the national armies, allowing the rapid spread of information through the ranks, down to the lowest foot soldier.
The Salvadoran Council of Ministers was the organization that charged the crime of genocide against Honduras, not some obscure, regional, and unregulated newspaper. Salvadoran President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez was the one who blamed any acts of violence on “communist and subversive elements.” The leaders were the ones who made the accusations all the more believable, since the citizens believed that they could put their trust in the government. In both Honduras and El Salvador, as in many other Latin American countries, the presidents functioned as both politicians and generals, leading their armies into battle. This dramatically changed the dynamics of perceptions in Latin America.
The Organization of American States (OAS) was an international organization, created on Apr. 30, 1948, at Bogotá, Colombia, by agreement of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Another 17 states have subsequently joined. The OAS is a regional agency designed to work with the United Nations to promote peace, justice, and hemispheric solidarity. One of its primary goals is to cultivate economic development, especially during the 1960s; it was an “Alliance for Progress” meant to “defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the signatory nations.” Yet the OAS did not effectively mediate the Football War. Nor did the U.S. State Department take active steps to resolve the conflict: “The U.S. State Department did not plan to intervene unilaterally in the dispute,” according to State Department spokesperson Robert McClosley.
The United States’ desire to stay discreetly in the background during the crisis and “operate within the framework of the regional organization” stemmed from a desire to improve its image in the eyes of the OAS. After years of interventionist policy, the U.S. sought to appease its hemispheric partners and allow the OAS to coordinate any response to the turmoil. It is worth noting that, given the U.S.’ desire to stay out of the conflict, it was unlikely that the OAS would take action. According to Latin America expert William M. LeoGrande and defense expert Carla Anne Robbins, “the United States’ domination of the OAS is so complete that the regional organization acts only when the political or strategic interests of North America are involved.” The OAS was reluctant to forcefully intervene to prevent the conflict from escalating, and the U.S. “never moved from a position of extreme caution, preferring to remain on the periphery of the conflict” to protect its own self-interests, which were arguably never in any real danger.
Despite its relatively short, 100-hour duration, the Soccer War was by no means an isolated conflict that was quickly resolved and then largely forgotten. Its influence continues to resonate in both Honduras and El Salvador today, and its legacy has even been felt in recent World Cup soccer qualifying matches. When it quickly became clear in July 1969 that Honduras and El Salvador were not going to end the war on their own, the Organization of American States (OAS) met in Washington to discuss the forced evacuation of El Salvador from Honduras. The OAS arranged a cease-fire that took effect on July 20, 1969. After identifying El Salvador as the aggressor, the OAS decided to impose “upon it [El Salvador] diplomatic and economic sanctions.” At this point, casualties on both sides were already greater than 2,000. Diplomatically, the OAS sanctions marked the official end of the conflict. However, both countries continued to feel the implications of the war long after the ceasefire was arranged. The Central American Common Market was suspended for twenty-two years, trade was disrupted, and vigorous propaganda still circulated in both El Salvador and Honduras. Honduras later seceded from the Central American economic union. It then decided to reestablish importation taxes on products from Common Market countries and sign bilateral commercial treaties without concern for the rules of the economic community. Consequently, Honduras remains one of Latin America’s poorest countries today.
Honduras’s inability or unwillingness to integrate into the Central American Common Market served mainly to strengthen the “existing [political] order.” Most recently, on June 28, 2009, the Honduran army ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya from power after months of mounting tensions surround his attempts to “lift presidential term limits.” The coup marked the first successful “military takeover of a Central American government in 16 years.” In the days leading up to June 28, Zelaya had been advocating a referendum regarding the rewriting of the constitution, and one of his eventual goals was probably to extend his presidential term. He ignored the Administrative Law Tribunal’s injunction against holding the referendum, and consequently, the Honduran Supreme Court issued a secret order for his detention. Early in the morning of June 28, soldiers arrived at Zelaya’s home in Tegucigalpa, disarmed the presidential guard, and roused Zelaya from his bed. He was then promptly flown to exile in Costa Rica at gunpoint and sustained no injuries. Zelaya quickly contacted media in San José and referred to the event as a kidnapping, and refused to recognize anyone named president in his stead. His close friend Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, vowed to consider the coup “an ‘act of war’ if there were hostilities against his diplomats.” Colonel Inestroza, chief lawyer in the military, later admitted that Zelaya’s deportation did in fact violate the court order, which only gave permission for the president’s removal from office. However, Inestroza justified the military’s actions by asserting that Zelaya was removed from the country strictly to prevent violence and bloodshed. After accepting Zelaya’s supposed letter of resignation, the National Congress quickly named Roberto Micheletti, a congressional leader and member of Zelaya’s political party, as his successor and called the coup “a democratic act.” The United States government, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and every other country in Latin America have refused to recognize Micheletti as President, condemning Zelaya’s removal as a coup. The international community placed a lot of pressure on Honduras to resolve the issue. Zelaya denied resigning and made two unsuccessful open attempts to return to Honduras before eventually returning clandestinely and seeking asylum in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. While in Costa Rica, he stated, “I want to return to my country. I am president of Honduras.” Micheletti’s government was characterized by multiple violations of human rights such as habeas corpus and freedom of association, as well as by rigid restrictions placed on the press. On Sunday, November 29, Honduras held presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, monitored by more than 30,000 soldiers, police, and reservists. Both Zelaya and Micheletti were ineligible to run, and ltimately, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, candidate for the National Party, won the presidency with 56% of the vote. Elvin Santos, the candidate from Zelaya’s and Micheletti’s Liberal Party, was second with 38%. However, the coup d’état that occurred in June undermined the legitimacy of this election, with many organizations and individuals, both within Honduras and internationally. Most nations and international bodies refused to recognize the elections held under Micheletti.
In El Salvador, the Soccer War “obscured the problem of population growth and was used to justify militarily repressive control measures.” The government used the National Democratic Organization (Orden), a “peasant organization” established in the early 1960s, to coercively control the nation and protect the interests of the landed oligarchy. By the late 1970s, Orden had about 100,000 members and “functioned as a paramilitary adjunct and an important part of the rural intelligence network for the security forces.” Elections were frequently marred by fraud and corruption. However, the military was soon confronted with a new phenomenon: left-wing terrorism. During the mid-1970s, radical leftist groups began to gain widespread support, and many popular organizations began to mobilize the masses “behind a revolutionary program of radical reform.” Most of these organizations were run by guerrilla groups and drew their leadership from Christian Base Communities, a group of radical Roman Catholic revolutionary organizations. The largest was the Revolutionary Popular Bloc, which boasted a membership of approximately 60,000. Some of the most extreme groups kidnapped government officials and held them for ransom and attacked government buildings in San Salvador. Finally, civil war broke out in 1980 between the government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of five left-wing militias. The United States backed the right wing military government, while Cuba and the Soviet Union threw their support to the Marxist-Leninist rebels. El Salvador’s infrastructure quickly collapsed, and thousands fled, hoping to find sanctuary in Honduras. However, complicating matters was the presence of a large number of Nicaraguan refugees in Honduras, who had fled the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. “Border skirmishes flared again” between Honduras and El Salvador in May 1980, when the Honduran military killed more than 500 refugees attempting “to cross the border region of the Sumpul River.” It remains unclear whether or not the Honduran border patrol or the Salvadoran military fired first, but regardless, diplomatic relations between the two nations became even more complicated. The countries eventually signed a peace treaty on October 30, 1980, “agreeing to continue negotiations on the final demarcation of the border.” However, it would be an additional twelve years until the World Court finally resolved the border disputes, dividing territory between El Salvador and Honduras. In El Salvador, civil war and unrest dragged on for more than a decade. The Chapultepec Peace Accords were finally signed in Chapultepec, Mexico in 1992, creating a new Constitution, regulating the armed forces, establishing a civilian police force, and transforming the FMLN from a guerrilla army to a political party. The United Nations monitored the peace process until 1997.
Recently, some echoes of the Soccer War emerged during the 2010 World Cup qualifying matches between Honduras and the United States, as well as those between Honduras and El Salvador. On October 10, 2009, the United States and Honduras met in a qualifier under domestic conditions similar to those in 1969: political upheaval, demonstrations, factions, and militaristic rule in Honduras setting that country’s direction. The game was to occur “smack dab in the middle of an ongoing political crisis in Honduras,” while the OAS sent delegations in an attempt to peacefully relieve the tension. An article in Americas Quarterly published before the match speculated that “anyone seeking to stir things up in Honduras—from within or without—might well attempt to use the passions surrounding the game as a way to provoke an over-reaction by the security forces,” which would cause Micheletti’s government to face intense international scrutiny. The article also proposed that a Honduran victory could also “increase national pride, which might well be transferred to [Micheletti’s] de facto government.” Despite the intense political climate surrounding the qualifying matches, politics were not allowed to interfere, and the games were played as planned. Both teams were determined to make it to South Africa and were unwilling to let political struggles impede their chances. Many Hondurans looked forward to the game simply because they wanted to cheer for the same side and be unified, even just briefly, “in the midst of the worst political crisis that Central America has faced in decades.” The game would give people a break from protests and curfews, a 90-minute respite from politics. Before leaving Florida, United States coach Bob Bradley briefed the players on the political situation– the team was greeted by military forces upon their arrival, and had to tread carefully given the political upheaval. Ultimately, the United States won 3-2 in an exciting match, and Honduran fans, though disappointed, were generally respectful and applauded the win. During the match, Honduras took the lead with a goal in the 47th minute, but the United States eventually answered with three goals. This victory guaranteed the U.S. a trip to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, while Honduras was left to continue vying for a spot.
Soon after the U.S.-Honduras game, another match also brought to mind some lingering memories of the Soccer War. On October 14, 2009, El Salvador and Honduras met in a qualifying round for the CONCACAF region. The 1969 qualifying matches between the two countries had provoked the outbreak of war, but thankfully peace had prevailed for the forty years since. Honduras won the match 1-0, securing the last automatic World Cup qualifying spot in the CONCACAF region (after the Costa Rica-U.S. game ended in a draw). 2010 marked Honduras’s second-ever World Cup appearance and first since 1982. The victory over El Salvador marked El Salvador’s first-ever home loss during the qualifying rounds. After defeating El Salvador, “Honduras’s players erupted in emotional celebration.” Honduran coach Reinaldo Rueda said after the match that “his team’s achievement was a success for the whole country and the ‘happiness of the people.’” Unfortunately, politics ultimately tainted this euphoria, as both Micheletti’s de facto government and Zelaya’s ousted government tried to use the soccer team’s victory to their advantage to gain political support. In a show of support for the former president, Amado Guevara, captain of the Honduran team, gave Manuel Zelaya a signed jersey after the win. Despite its political ramifications, the 2010 victory over El Salvador was an exciting end to a successful string of qualifying matches.
Mexican journalist Luis Suarez states that, in Latin America, the “border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team. Players on the losing team are denounced in the press as traitors.”  There is no better example of this phenomenon than the Soccer War, in which sport was, if not the main cause of the underlying tensions, the catalyst for armed conflict. Moreover, while this war was localized, regional, and concentrated, it was nonetheless brutal. Fifty thousand citizens of both countries lost their homes and farms was a result of the six-day war. But most unsettling, perhaps, is not the capacity of soccer to affect politics, but rather the suspicious motives of political leaders that also helped push the nations to war. Polish Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski laments bluntly: “Both governments are satisfied: for several days Honduras and El Salvador occupied the front pages of the world press and were the object of interest and concern. The only chance small countries from the Third World have of evoking a lively international interest is when they decide to shed blood.” This outlook and willingness to sacrifice life for temporary international attention are undoubtedly far graver aspects of the conflict than its soccer catalyst. Despite the many weighty causes of the Soccer War–the border disputes, the trade (dis)agreements, as well as the confrontation’s role in international politics–the conflict is named after the sport. Soccer was not the biggest underlying cause of the conflict, but it was the impetus that elicited fierce–and violent–passions on both side of the border. Thus, in examining the relationship between sport and politics, we must not forget that sport can play a pivotal role in influencing world events.
How to cite this article: Lindsey Barrett, Colby Leachman, Claire Lockerby, Steven McMullen, Matthew Schorr, Yuriy Veytskin, “The Soccer War,” at Soccer Politics Pages, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp (accessed on (date)).
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