While European soccer fans have been known for letting their enthusiasm get the better of them, the trophy-winning example of sports mania run amok has to be the 1969 conflict between El Salvador and Honduras known as the Football or Soccer War.
In July of that year, some long-standing immigration and border disputes between the two Central American nations boiled over into a military confrontation during a series of hotly contested World Cup qualifying matches. The resulting war lasted four days and would take more than a decade to be finally resolved.
The roots of the conflict go back to the beginning of the 20th Century. For years, peasants from the much tinier but more densely populated El Salvador had been migrating into Honduras to settle. Land reforms aimed at redistributing migrant Salvadorian homesteads into the hands of Honduran nationals caused much resentment between the two countries for much of the 1960s.
The bad blood only worsened during the soccer series, which would see just one of the two countries advance to the World Cup in 1970. From the start, the round was marred by violence and hooliganism.
The first game, held in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on June 8, 1969, saw Honduras defeat El Salvador 1 to 0. Fans from both teams fought in the stands while brawls erupted in the and in the streets after the match. Things turned deadly when a distraught 18-year-old Salvadorian girl shot herself following the upset. The Salvadorian president declared the girl a martyr and ordered the state television to broadcast her funeral.
During the emotionally charged second game in the series, this one held in the Salvadorian capital on June 15, more fights erupted in the stands between locals rooting for the home team and fans bussed in from Honduras. El Salvador took the match 3 to 0.
A third meeting, held on June 26 in Mexico City, saw Honduras defeated yet again — this time 3 to 2 in overtime. Riding high on the win, the government of El Salvador dissolved diplomatic ties with its neighbor, citing the ‘genocidal’ land reforms going on in Honduras and demanding compensations for displaced Salvadorians.
Within hours, sporadic clashes were reported between troops on the border of the two nations.
Tensions finally boiled over into full-scale war on July 14 when Salvadorian troops crossed the border into Honduran territory. The attackers used the two main roads between the countries to move troops. Honduran border guards fired at the attackers, but were brushed aside. By the end of the first day of fighting, the Salvadorian army had pushed five miles into enemy territory. Within four days they were threatening the Honduran capital, which is less than 60 miles from the border.
Fighting was not limited to the ground. As soon as hostilities began, both countries launched air attacks on targets in each other’s territory. Military authorities ordered blackouts in both capitals.
Both air forces used antiquated piston engine fighters. The Salvadorians hastily converted C-47 passenger planes to be used as bombers. The war is perhaps best known as the last time planes like the F4U Corsair and P-51 Mustang saw action. In fact, some report that El Salvador hired veteran American combat pilots to fly missions in the vintage war birds.
Following diplomatic intervention by the Organization of American States, fighting was suspended on July 18, although Salvadorian troops didn’t withdraw from Honduras until late August. A formal peace treaty wasn’t signed for another 11 years.
Approximately 100 Honduran soldiers were killed in the 100-hour war. Civilian losses were estimated to be around 2,000. Salvadorian casualties were fewer than 1,000 troops and civilians.
Like Honduras, the conflict was El Salvador’s first war. It continues to be a source of pride for many in that country.