Why We Should Stop Calling the 1969 Conflict Between El Salvador and Honduras “La Guerra del Fútbol”

July 14-18, 1969 marks a bloody chapter in Central American history known as “La Guerra del Fútbol.” It was the last conflict in world history to feature propeller warplanes, Mustangs against Corsairs. Death tolls reached nearly 5,000 people, over 15,000 were wounded (majority civilians), and tens of thousands were displaced due to damage done by intense shelling – all over the course of 100 hours.

The name “La Guerra del Fútbol” is quite deceiving, since the conflict’s causes go much deeper than fútbol. But despite this fact, mass media dubbed it fútbol-related due to the fact that it blossomed in the aftermath of El Salvador beating out Honduras for a spot in the 1970 FIFA World Cup. In reality, it is thanks to Polish writer/reporter Ryszard Kapuściński – the “conjurer extraordinaire of modern reportage” – that we call it the “Soccer War” to this day.

It was pure coincidence that El Salvador beat Honduras 3-2 in a playoff match (after a series of matches marred by fan fighting and violence) on the very day it dissolved diplomatic ties with its neighbor over struggles for land reform and demographic/immigration issues. But it was a coincidence that was wildly overhyped by many, Kapuściński the prime culprit.

The name “La Guerra del Fútbol” is quite deceiving – the conflict’s causes go much deeper than fútbol.

During Kapuscinski’s lifetime, he survived 27 revolutions and was condemned to death an unprecedented four times (or so he says…). He authored books that have gained worldwide recognition – The Shadow of the Sun, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, and Shah of Shahs – and, of course, penned The Soccer War, largely considered a sports journalism masterpiece.

At school, teachers told me that Kapuściński was one of the most credible reporters to ever hone his craft. But it was these same people who advised me to doubt every word that journalists tell us. The conflicting duality of these statements is perhaps why many don’t realize just how much Kapu tried to hype up reality in an effort to put its essence on prominent display. As Artur Domoslawski, reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, poignantly put it, “[Kapuściński] heightened the border of reportage by feeding it with literary tools.” His words sounded beautiful and poetic, but they weren’t always truthful to the events that he wrote about.

In Domoslawski’s biography, Kapuściński Non-Fiction, the writer is described as crossing the border between fact and fiction with great frequency in order to make his histories more powerful and dramatic. To provide one such example: Kapu never actually met Ernesto “El Ché” Guevara, as he often claimed in his books. 

In the case of The Soccer Wars, it is possible that Kapu didn’t fully realize the passion that fútbol has the potential to ignite, that his words might lead to soccer being considered the conflict’s one and only cause. Or maybe he did, and it was his British editors who swayed him towards misleading readers; the book’s original title was Botas rather than The Soccer War, and it was originally conceived of as a compilation of chronicles in which he stated that the 100 Hour War came about as a result of old land and immigration issues between El Salvador and Honduras.

Fútbol is where our most unrestrained passions often come to see the light of day, after all.

In Scarcity and Survival in Central America: Ecological Origins of the Soccer War by William H. Durham, the conflict is put into context in a much more fluid and nuanced way. The American anthropologist states that the Honduran government was unhappy with the effects of the 1960 Common Market Agreement on their economy, adding that the nearly 300,000 Salvadorans that traveled into Honduran territory in search of a better life were viewed as as a threat in an environment where work and resources were scarce. Honduras thus fabricated a plan to expel the Salvadorans, which angered Salvadoran authorities and heightened border tensions (a point of great contention in the two decades following independence.)

The war’s first airstrikes – carried out by the Salvadoran Air Force – took place on July 14, 36 days after Honduras’ 1-0 win over El Salvador in Tegucigalpa, 29 days after El Salvador’s 3-0 win in San Salvador, and even closer to the third game that took place on June 26. Kapuściński was present that day in Mexico City. He wrote that “Honduran fans were placed on one side of the stadium, the Salvadoran fans on the other side, and down the middle sat 5,000 Mexican police armed with thick clubs.” Tensions on fields and in soccer stadiums translated into troops – this was not the reason for war, but perhaps foreshadowed the dark days to come. Fútbol is where our most unrestrained passions often come to see the light of day, after all.

What should really be highlighted in relation to fútbol’s role in this event is its reconciliatory power; this month we celebrate 37 years to the day that barriers were broken through sport. On March 2, 1979 – less than a decade after the 100 Hour War – four matches were held in Tegucigalpa, San Salvador and Santa Ana, all under the mark of the previously disappeared Torneo de la Fraternidad Centroamericana. True to its name, the games showed soccer’s ability to settle differences; Olimpia beat Santiagueño 4-1, Motagua tied Alianza 1-1, Broncos defeated FAS 1-3, and Real España fell 5-3 to Atlético Marte. Then, finally, on November 23, 1980, El Salvador and Honduras met again, with the former winning 2-1.