The Football War
The legendary Liverpool Football Club managed Bill Shankly once famously declared: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Wise words indeed when you consider how much fighting and rioting has taken place due to grievances related to the world’s most popular sport. But only once has a football match led to the start of a war, or at least been the trigger that caused long-standing tensions to finally explode into full-on fighting. That happened in June 1969, with a World Cup qualifying match between Honduras and El Salvador.
It’s important to note that, while the two nations were certainly fierce rivals on the pitch, there was much more to this than just football. In 1962, Honduras passed a milestone land reform bill that took land away from global corporations and put it back in the hands of its own people. The problem is, the law also saw huge numbers of Salvadorians lose out, too. Millions who had crossed the border to work the land were expelled from Honduras, causing bad blood between the people and their governments.
So, when the two nations met for the first of two games in June 1969, things were on the brink of boiling over. Honduras narrowly won the first match, but then El Salvador tied the series with victory in their own capital just three weeks later. Both games were accompanied by riots, though peace was preserved. However, a third game was then required, to be played in neutral Mexico City. El Salvador won the game 3-2, and then all hell broke loose. After weeks of hostile comments, El Salvador finally took action, deploying a makeshift air force. They succeeded in knocking out the Honduran air defenses and the Salvadoran ground forces also made impressive progress too.
The next day, however, Honduras hit back. It sent its own planes to attack ports and oil refineries across the border. Fortunately, sanity prevailed. Perhaps fearful that the international community would punish them both for going to war, Honduras and El Salvador sat down and agreed to a ceasefire on 20 July. In total, the fighting had lasted less than 100 hours after having been sparked off by a football match. But the effects would be felt in the region for years to come. In both countries, the military came to the fore, with defense spending up and social spending down and even today, the two countries maintain a fierce rivalry, both on and off the football pitch.