When qualification really is a matter of life and death

 

THE FOOTBALL WAR:HONDURAS v EL SALVADOR: Only once has a derby tie been singled out as responsible for starting a war between nations

SOCCER HAS been blamed for hooliganism, vandalism, riots and even the fall of governments. But only once has a derby tie been singled out as responsible for starting a war between nations.

In the North/Central American Zone for the 1970 World Cup finals, Honduras finished top of the first qualifying group, with El Salvador at the head of their group.

With Mexico the host nation for the finals tournament, there was just a single qualifying spot up for grabs in the region, and so the stakes were high when Honduras and El Salvador met for the two-legged semi-final.

The first game took place in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, on June 8th, 1969, with the home side recording a 1-0 victory.

At the time, there were simmering tensions between the countries, due largely to issues concerning immigration from El Salvador, which had twice the population of its neighbour, into Honduras, which is much greater in geographical size.

Not surprisingly, Honduras’ victory was greeted by the home population as much more than simply a victory in football.

In El Salvador, the loss was met with outrage, and the national side – who complained that their hotel in Tegucigalpa was the scene of rioting and loud chanting on the night before the game – on their return to San Salvador was made to attend the televised funeral of a teenage girl who had shot herself after witnessing the defeat.

A week later, the Honduras team arrived at Flor Blanco Stadium for the second leg in armoured vehicles.

Tensions had already boiled over, with three Salvadorans dying in rioting prior to the second leg.

Not surprisingly, the home side played as if their lives depended on the result, claiming a 3-0 victory. However, the result did not prevent rioting erupting again and visiting supporters were attacked on the journey back to Honduras. As the reports filtered back to Honduras, retaliatory attacks on Salvadorans living there escalated.

Meanwhile, with the home sides winning both games – and aggregate scores not yet being the deciding factor in World Cup qualifying ties – a play-off match was needed.

On June 26th, despite the recent games having brought the countries to the brink of war, Honduras and El Salvador met in Mexico City, with El Salvador prevailing 3-2 after extra-time.

The Honduran fans sat on one side of the stadium, with supporters of El Salvador on the other. Between them stood 5,000 armed Mexican policemen. There were few reports of trouble.

That evening, diplomatic relations between the nations were broken off.

On July 5th, 1969, The Irish Times reported on the escalating border clashes, commenting – under the headline “Football War gets to shooting stage” – that “the long-standing feud between the two Central-American Republics reached the present acute stage when last month El Salvador and Honduras played elimination matches for the 1970 World Cup”.

Inevitably, on July 14th, the Salvadoran army launched a ground and air invasion. While the offensive was initially successful, it eventually ground to a halt several miles inside Honduras.

The Organisation of American States quickly negotiated a ceasefire, which took effect on July 20th.

La Guerra del Fúbol, “The Football War”, was over, but not before the four-day conflict had claimed more than 4,000 lives – and resulted in 300,000 Salvadorans being forced to leave Honduras and return to their home country, where they were not welcomed.

Since then, while the countries have met several times and every game has been treated as another battle between bitter adversaries, no game has had such dire consequences.

Recently, Honduras and El Salvador have qualified for the fourth, and final, qualifying round in the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone for the 2010 World Cup finals, which began a few weeks ago.

It will be no surprise should Honduras make the trip to South Africa next year. Their 3-1 home victory in San Pedro Sola against Mexico at the start of this month resulted in the sacking of the former England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Carlo Costly, a striker who recently joined Birmingham City, scored twice, with the home favourite, Carols Pavan – who has 51 goals and 86 international caps – scoring Honduras’ other goal.

The squad also includes Wigan defender Manor Figure and former Wigan midfielder Wilson Palaces, who recently signed for Tottenham.

El Salvador’s squad, however, is almost exclusively from clubs within the country.

Uniquely, the countries will meet no fewer than four times this year, having already met twice in the UNCAF 2009 Nations Cup.

In the first game, in Tegucigalpa, the home side claimed a 2-0 victory, and the sides met again in the competition’s third-place play-off at the same venue, with the home team again winning, this time 1-0.

On June 10th, the two will meet at Stadia Olympic Metropolitan in San Pedro Sola for the crucial World Cup qualifier, and the return fixture, on October 14th at Stadia Castilian in San Salvador, will be the final game in the World Cup qualifying section – and could well decide if either of the countries will have a direct interest in the 2010 World Cup finals.

Thankfully, no matter what the result, neither game is expected to again result in one country invading the other.

Honduras

v

El Salvador