The Football War

El Salvador is less than one–fifth the size of Honduras, but in 1969 its population was some 40% higher than that of its neighbour (3.7 million, compared with 2.6 million). Salvadorans had begun migrating to Honduras in large numbers in the early 20th century, and by 1969 there were more than 300,000 Salvadorans living in Honduras – making up 20% of the peasant population.

In Honduras, as in much of Central America, the bulk of the land was owned by large corporations. In 1966 many of these companies joined forces, to put pressure on the Honduran government to protect the property rights of wealthy landowners.

In 1962 Honduras had enacted a new land reform law. Fully enforced by 1967, this law empowered the central government and municipalities to seize much of the land that had been occupied by Salvadoran immigrants and redistribute it to native–born Hondurans. The land was taken from both immigrant farmers and squatters, regardless of their claims to ownership or immigration status. Thousands of Salvadoran labourers were expelled from Honduras, including both migrant workers and longer–term settlers. It was this general rise in tensions that led ultimately to a military conflict, but the fact that the two nations played three closely–contested FIFA World Cup qualifying matches at the height of the tension didn't help.

It was the second (semi-final) stage of the CONCACAF qualifying competition, from which one of the two nations would progress to the final stage. There was fighting between fans at the first game, in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on 8 June 1969, which Honduras won 1–0. The second game, played seven days later in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, was won 3–0 by El Salvador, and was followed by even greater violence. There was no provision for separating the teams if they finished level on points, so a play–off match took place in Mexico City on 26 June. It was won 3–2 by El Salvador, after extra time.

I could find no reports of violence associated with the play-off game, but both El Salvador and Honduras were disqualified from entering the 1969 CONCACAF Championship because of the ongoing conflict between them.

Meanwhile, on the day of its victory in the World Cup qualification play-off match, El Salvador severed all diplomatic ties with Honduras. It accused the Honduran government of condoning genocide and failing to provide "assurances of indemnification or reparations for the damages caused to Salvadorans."

Concerted military action began on 14 July 1969. The Salvadoran Air Force attacked targets inside Honduras, and its army launched major offensives along the two main roads connecting the nations. By the evening of 15 July, the Salvadoran army had pushed its Honduran counterpart back more than eight kilometres, and was within striking distance of Tegucigalpa.

On 15 July, following an appeal from the Honduran government, the Organisation of American States (OAS) called for an immediate cease–fire and the withdrawal of El Salvador's forces from Honduras. There was no immediate response, and the following morning the Honduran Air Force attacked an air base in El Salvador. Later that day they attacked El Salvador's main oil facilities, on the Pacific coast.

A cease–fire was finally arranged on the night of 18 July, although it only took full effect two days later. El Salvador resisted pressure to withdraw its troops for several days, but finally did so on 2 August, after Honduras guaranteed that it would provide adequate protection for any Salvadorans still living in Honduras.

The actual war had lasted just over four days (14–18 July 1969), and as well as the Football War it also became known as the 100–Hour War. The two nations finally signed a peace treaty on 30 October 1980.

El Salvador played Haiti in the final round of CONCACAF qualification for the 1970 World Cup, and this too went to a play–off – which El Salvador won 1–0 after extra time. In the finals tournament they were drawn against the Soviet Union, Mexico and Belgium; they lost all three games (2–0, 4–0 and 3–0 respectively) and finished bottom of their First Round group.

© Haydn Thompson 2017