Football in the shadow of conflict

Football in the shadow of conflict

IN JUNE 1969, AROUND THE TIME WHEN THE USA’S CAMPAIGN IN VIETNAM RAGED to epic proportions and caught the nervous attention of the watching world, a different conflict much closer to home was burgeoning dangerously.

El Salvador had just beaten Honduras 3-0 at home a week after Honduras had snatched a 1-0 victory in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, in a crucial two-legged affair to see which nation would travel to Mexico the following summer for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. With the absence of an aggregate score, a decisive third match was played at the Aztec City Stadium in Mexco City. El Salvador won a fiercely contested battle 3-2, thus advancing to the World Cup.

These were no ordinary football matches, however, as they sparked a four-day conflict between the two Central American countries commonly described as the ‘Football War’. Following El Salvador’s defeat to Honduras in the first match, Amelia Bolanos refused to endure the humiliation that went with the loss to their neighbours. She got up from the TV, ran over to a desk, pulled out her father’s pistol from one of the drawers and shot herself in the heart. The girl could not bear to see her country defeated in such heartbreaking circumstances.

Her death signalled the beginning of the conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, but remained strangely overlooked by the rest of the world. On the same day that saw El Salvador narrowly edge their rivals 3-2 in Mexico City, Honduras severed diplomatic ties with them.

To say the conflict was caused by football, however, would be naive in the extreme. Rather, the football matches were played against a backdrop of mounting tensions between the two nations, as political disputes flared over issues of immigration that stemmed from population density. In 1969, Honduras had a population of 2.3 million, while El Salvador – despite covering one-fifth of land as Honduras – had a population of 3 million, resulting in an overcrowded country that suffered from a poor quality of life.

As a result, in an attempt to find a better situation, thousands migrated to Honduras, and by the time the first qualifying match took place for the World Cup, there were approximately 300,000 Salvadoran immigrants living in Honduras. The resentment of rural Honduras in losing their jobs to immigrants led to simmering political tensions between the two nations and just as the football matches were poised to take place, the conflict was poised to explode.

The Salvadoran team arrived in Tegucigalpa on Saturday and spent a sleepless night in their hotel. The team could not sleep because it was the target of psychological warfare waged by the Honduran fans as a swarm of people encircled the hotel. The crowd threw stones at the windows and beat sheets of tin and empty barrels with sticks. They set off one set of firecrackers after another. They leaned on the horn of cars parked in front of the hotel. The fans whistled, screamed and sent up hostile chants. This went on all night. The idea was that a sleepy, edgy, exhausted team would be bound to lose. They were right.

Honduras snatched a 1-0 victory courtesy of a stoppage time goal from their star player, Enrique Cardona, an Atlético Madrid player at the time, and sparked rioting in the stands and the murder of two Hondurans outside their hotel. When the news of Bolanos’ suicide broke, the propagandistic Salvadoran media used it as an instrument to drive national pride into their people, simultaneously driving hatred towards the Hondurans into them as well. In the build-up to the second match in El Salvador, nationalist fervour and mutual antipathy at reached such a level it required the Salvadoran Security Service to hide the Honduran team at an undisclosed location.

It was the second match, won 3-0 by El Salvador as soldiers patrolled the stadium and players were escorted to and from the stadium in armoured cars, that sparked the conflict into life. It took place in took place in San Salvador, the beautifully named Flor Blanca stadium, a week later. This time it was the Honduran team that spent a sleepless night. The screaming crowd of fans broke all the windows in the hotel and threw rotten eggs, dead rats and stinking rags inside in an echoed foray into psychological warfare.

The players were taken to the match in armoured cars of the First Salvadoran Mechanized Division – which saved them from revenge and bloodshed at the hands of the mob that lined the route, holding up portraits of the national heroine Amelia Bolanos. Goals from Elver Acevedo, Juan Ramon Martinez and Mauricio Rodriguez brushed aside Honduras on a sweltering afternoon in San Salvador, but the match sparked a wave of violence that would grip the two nations for a brief but devastating 100-hour period. The fans, kicked and beaten, fled towards the border. Two of them died. Scores landed in hospital. One hundred and fifty of the visitors’ cars were burned. The border between the two states was closed a few hours later.

“We’re awfully lucky that we lost, otherwise we would have been dead,” said the Honduran coach Mario Griffin as his team fled home. According to Lorenzo Dee Belveal, an American writer who wrote a colossal six-volume account of the conflict said:

“When the futbolistas got back to Tegucigalpa and began recounting their experiences in the sister republic, righteous indignation burst into flame. Goon-squads of Tegucigalpa fans mounted a rumble against resident Salvadoreans that quickly turned into a very heavy scene. In addition to black eyes and cracked heads, bones were broken and people were killed.”

In the aftermath of the second match on July 14, the war officially began when three El Salvadoran fighter aircrafts made an incursion into Honduran airspace. Soon afterwards, the Salvadoran army made immediate advances toward Tegucigalpa and launched attacks on the main road connecting the two countries. The bombs that were dropped enveloped the city in panic and hysteria. The lights went out on the street and with the screams of worried mothers and bustling of worried merchants choking the atmosphere; the capital was plunged into darkness.

The Honduran air force retaliated with strategic bombings of oil refineries and major power centres in El Salvador. With both sides running out of ammunition, a ceasefire was eventually called and went into effect on July 20. The conflict was brief, but the losses were devastating, and the impact lingers still today. Over 6,000 people were killed, while 12,000 were left wounded and the destruction of villages, homes and fields displaced approximately 50,000 people.

According to declassified intelligence reports from the CIA, El Salvador “bombed and strafed Honduran border positions and the airport at Tegucigalpa. El Salvador is expected to continue its attack in anticipation of an early cease-fire agreement.” The conflict remained overlooked, however, forced into the periphery of the global consciousness by other events at the time such as Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.

Before travelling to Mexico for the third match, President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez called the El Salvadoran national team to his house and treated them to soft drinks and a meal. But he had one important message for the Argentine head coach, Gregorio Bundio; you are a foreigner but as a foreigner you must protect the national colours of El Salvador in the way you would if you were born here.

It showed that the president viewed the match not just as a sporting event against two bitter rivals; it was, once again, an opportunity to express Salvadoran nationalism and boost national dignity. Bundio put the 3-2 victory down to buying new boots for the slippery Aztec pitch, not eating a pre-match meal in their hotel due to fear of food poisoning and ensuring that all players touched their testicles to show that they would not leave them in the dressing room.

Mexican journalist Luis Suarez claims: “[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.” Such a quote goes a long way in explaining how expressions of nationalism and pride in the form of football still have the dark power to divide and trigger violence.

The ‘Football War’ was not caused predominantly by the sport, rather an amalgamation of socio-economic factors that had been threatening to rip the nations apart anyway. Nevertheless football, as the catalyst for fervent expressions of nationalism on the pitch, triggered the conflict and once again proved how sport, football specifically, has the capacity to influence and shape to politics. The war serves as a potent reminder of how football has the power to divide and initiate the horrors of war.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

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