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Jul 14, 2011

Rewind to 1969: The Football War

Despite many fans' claims to the contrary, football and war are two distinctly separate things. However, July 14, 1969 saw the beginning of what would become known as the 'Football War' - a four-day battle in which around 6,000 were killed or injured when El Salvador invaded neighbouring Honduras after a series of World Cup qualifying games between the pair.

Politics has littered football history with conflicts for generations, but few occasions can have had the impact that one of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup did in 1969, as El Salvador and Honduras met in the semi-finals in a bid to become the first Central American side to qualify for world football's showpiece event.

Despite the name attributed to it, the background of the quarrels between the two is not purely rooted in football; a complex economic and environmental dispute along their border had been waging for over 30 years, with land disputes at its core.

Overpopulated El Salvador had what historian David Goldblatt called ''the most grotesquely unequal distribution of land in a grotesquely unequal part of the world.'' This meant that there were large numbers of landless and destitute peasants who went in search of work in the larger and much less densely populated neighbour Honduras - by 1969, that number had reached over 300,000.

These Salvadoran immigrants made up 20% of the peasant population in Honduras but, in the country, President General Lopez Arellano was being forced to protect the property rights of wealthy landowners, who owned the majority of the land. A Land Reform Law that fully came into force in 1967 ensured that any land occupied illegally by Salvadorans was redistributed to native-born Hondurans.

This led to thousands of immigrants being displaced; forced to go back to their home country. Many were beaten ahead of their return and tensions were raised by allegations of torture and cruelty by the Hondurans that had the Salvadoran population baying for blood.

However, despite the complex political problems between the two, football still had to be played as the 1970 World Cup tournament in Mexico required one of the pair to advance to take on Haiti (who had beaten the USA) in the qualifying final. The prestige gained from playing in world football's showpiece event was a tantalising prospect for the players but, despite riding the nationalism bandwagon, both governments' motivations were transparent.

Having seen off the likes of Costa Rica and Jamaica; Netherlands Antilles and Dutch Guiana, in the group stages, El Salvador and Honduras met in their first semi-final qualifying play-off against a backdrop of tension in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on June 8, 1969.

After a night in which some noisy home supporters had surrounded the players' hotel in a bid to keep them up all night, Honduras won 1-0 thanks to a goal deep into injury time from Roberto Cardona and immediately following the match an eighteen-year old Salvadoran girl, Amelia Bolanos, shot herself in the heart at her home. 'The young girl could not bear to see her fatherland brought to its knees,' wrote the Salvadoran newspaper El Nacional the next day.

Given a televised funeral that was designed to whip up national fervour before the return fixture a week later, Bolanos was heralded as a martyr as El Salvador's president, ministers and the country's football team walked behind the flag-draped coffin.

While few outside the two countries paid much attention, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, chief chronicler of the Soccer War, reported that tensions were at an all-time ahead of the second leg. 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."

While the players were forced to travel to the game in armoured cars, mobs of fans lined the streets holding portraits of 'national heroine' Bolanos. As the match prepared to get underway, Kapuscinski wrote: "Instead of the Honduran flag - which had been burned before the eyes of the spectators, driving them wild with joy - the hosts ran a dirty, tattered dishrag up the flagpole." El Salvador won 3-0 and Honduran coach Mario Griffin said as his team fled home: "We're awfully lucky that we lost. Otherwise we wouldn't be alive today."

Some fans were not so lucky as two Hondurans were killed on streets of San Salvador and many others were assaulted, before launching their own deadly attacks on resident Salvadorans upon arrival back in Tegucigalpa.

However the hostilities were not over as, before the use of Goal Difference, points were awarded for a win and draw alone. Therefore with both teams having sealed a win apiece, a third match was needed in order to help decide the tie and a neutral venue, Mexico City, was chosen and the fixture was set for June 26.

The build-up to the deciding game could not have been more anticipated. Some 5,000 Salvadoran fans made the 770-mile trip, while the entire team were called to the president's house before the game and were told to ''defend the national colours, because this match was for our national dignity,'' according to the county's Argentine coach Gregorio Bundio, who was himself singled out for special attention.

A quieter affair in Mexico was down to the fact that both sets of supporters were divided by 5,000 Mexican police armed with thick clubs, but was still laced with problems for both sides, namely ''the altitude... the cold, and... the continual rain." El Salvador went ahead twice, but were pegged back with the help of Enrique 'The Rabbit' Cardona, who had been abused upon his arrival for the second leg by posters depicting him being beaten by a larger rabbit.

In order to deal with the threat of the striker, Bundio ordered his players to nullify him in any way they saw fit. "They kicked me off the pitch!" remembers Cardona. "I got a boot right in the chest. I've played in Spain, in England, in Ireland, and it's never happened to me since."

And it worked. After 120 minutes of brutal action in torrential rain, Mauricio Alonso Rodríguez headed El Salvador's winner to seal their place in the final after a 3-2 victory. Hours later, El Salvador dissolved all ties with Honduras, stating that "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".

According to Kapuscinski, newspapers of both countries took the nationalism bull by the horns, calling each other: "Nazis, dwarfs, drunkards, sadists, spiders, aggressors and thieves". Then on July 14, just two weeks after the football had ended, the real war began as Kapuscinski recalls: ''at dusk a plane flew over Tegucigalpa and dropped a bomb. Everybody heard it."

El Salvador's invasion was, of course, rooted in more than football, however the events of the qualifiers were essential to the rising nationalist anger that sparked the conflict into action. Four days later, after 100 hours and over 2,000 deaths, with the borders of the two combatants remaining the same, the war was over. On July 18, a ceasefire was arranged and, as it took full effect on July 20, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon and the event that came the closest to uniting the two concepts of football and war was cast into the shadows once more.

What happened next? El Salvador beat Haiti over three games to go to the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, but suffered a quick first round exit, losing meekly to the USSR, Mexico and Belgium. Relations between them and Honduras continued to prove tense, with trade disputes continuing for over a decade. Indeed, despite the ceasefire, a final peace treaty would not be signed until October 30, 1980. Bad blood continued across the border until, in 2006, the countries' presidents agreed on a frontier and shook hands across it.

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