Given that the Gold Cup recently ended, I feel it’s appropriate to discuss a topic related to soccer in Central America.
One of the things that many Americans (myself included!) find striking about the world’s passionate obsession with soccer (“football”) are the forceful and sometimes violent displays of emotion from even the most passive of fans. This is particularly evident in regions such as Latin America, where to this day stadium outbursts pose serious security challenges and is even a major political issue in states like Argentina.
In addition to dazzling the world with Brazilian-style football mastery, Latin American soccer also has a role in more serious international affairs. This post will briefly delve into the basics about one of the more tragic intersections between politics and sport: the “Soccer War” of 1969.
Football followers will note that 1969 comes just one year before the 1970 World Cup (also hosted by a Latin American country, Mexico). For the national teams of El Salvador and Honduras, this meant that World Cup qualifying matches were underway. Over three separate occasions in June 1969, these bordering nations had to play against each other to determine which team advanced to the World Cup, facing growing riots and violent fan behavior with each succeeding game. At the time, these nations’ relations were severely strained by the following factors:
- Very high population density in El Salvador forced many Salvadorans to seek a more spacious commode. Many – approximately 300,000 (10% of El Salvador’s population at the time and over 20% of Honduras’s peasant population) – settled in Honduras, primarily in rural areas. Threatened by the presence of recent arrivals, rural Hondurans often resorted to gang/vigilante terrorism to intimidate Salvadorans.
- Honduras was facing a serious debate over the nature and scope of land reform. Like many Central American countries in the 20th century, much of the (farm)land was owned by large corporations. Both Honduran peasants (cheated out of the land they’ve settled/cultivated) and Salvadoran immigrants (abused by their landowning corporate employers) were victimized in this rigid class structure.
- Honduras recently had a coup in 1963. To establish his new government’s legitimacy, Colonel Osvaldo López Arellano turned to nationalist rhetoric and campaigns, which would later drum up mounting pressure for war with El Salvador. This is most clearly seen in propaganda from the period.
- Scholars believe that soccer has a focus on depriving the opponent (hence the low scoring). This makes propaganda more potent, for it satisfies the frustration of not being able to score.
Into this backdrop, the “Soccer War” begins on the pitch (field) with the conclusion of the final qualifying match. This decisive game, played on June 26, 1969 is a bitterly contested match and goes into overtime. When El Salvador finally wins, both countries break off diplomatic relations and war is imminent. Weeks later, on July 14th, El Salvador begins airstrikes over Honduras. Honduras responds by crippling Salvadoran oil refineries and power plants. The Organization of American States soon gets involved and imposes a ceasefire on July 20th (when the USA was more preoccupied with the Apollo 11 moon landing).
While the results of the conflict are, in a global sense, not significant, the impacts to these two Central American nations are huge. During the short battles, thousands died with over 100,000 Salvadorans displaced. For both states, the trade disruptions this caused prevented either state from fully integrating into a regional trade network. This has had lasting economic repercussions, for both states (especially Honduras) are exceptionally poor. Both states are in the bottom half of the World Bank’s GDP ranking, with El Salvador 99th and Honduras 108th (out of 190). Salvadoran society and economy would also experienced a devastating civil war that would help make it one of today’s most murderous countries. Honduras’s role in harboring FMLN rebels during that time certainly helped to fuel the conflict.
Diplomatically, on the other hand, both states have made some considerable progress. In 1980 they signed a treaty and agreed to settle their particularly thorny Gulf of Fonseca dispute with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which awarded the territorial waters to Honduras. As a result, El Salvador and Honduras currently have full diplomatic relations with one another, and it will be interesting to watch how their involvement in regional organizations like SICA (Central American Integration System) will aid their recoveries out of debilitating violence and endemic poverty.