Soccer War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A six-day war between El Salvador and Honduras erupted following the defeat of Honduras by El Salvador in a World Cup qualifying series. The military conflict resulted from economic discrepancies and cultural disagreements, and it ended in a negotiated cease-fire with no clear victor.

Summary of Event

The Soccer War was so named because it occurred after El Salvador and Honduras participated in a tense World Cup World Cup (soccer) qualifying series. However, its root causes extended back several decades: Since the nineteenth century, the two nations had experienced tense relations resulting from border disagreements, economic disparity, and immigration issues. Up to 300,000 Salvadoran immigrants were living in Honduras by 1969. Honduras had fairly stringent immigration laws as a result of its small size, and many of its Salvadoran immigrants had entered the country illegally. Once there, however, many Salvadorans became economically successful, resulting in mounting jealousy by the Honduran population over the perceived loss of jobs to Salvadoran immigrants. Moreover, El Salvador and Honduras disagreed over the policies of the Central American Common Market Central American Common Market , and the two nations were conscious of inequities in land and wealth between their populations. Soccer War (1969) Nationalism;El Salvador Nationalism;Honduras [kw]Soccer War (July 14-20, 1969) [kw]War, Soccer (July 14-20, 1969) Soccer War (1969) Nationalism;El Salvador Nationalism;Honduras [g]Latin America;July 14-20, 1969: Soccer War[10340] [g]El Salvador;July 14-20, 1969: Soccer War[10340] [g]Honduras;July 14-20, 1969: Soccer War[10340] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 14-20, 1969: Soccer War[10340] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 14-20, 1969: Soccer War[10340] Lopéz Arellano, Oswaldo Sánchez Hernández, Fidel Plaza Lasso, Galo

For these reasons, in 1969 Honduran president Oswaldo Lopéz Arellano decided not to renew the 1967 Bilateral Treaty on Immigration Bilateral Treaty on Immigration (1967) , eventually sending many Salvadorans back to their overpopulated country. Arellano’s Salvadoran counterpart, Fidel Sánchez Hernández, was for his part pressured by La Catorce Catorce, La (the fourteen), a group of the fourteen wealthiest and most influential families and landowners in Honduras, vigorously to defend their holdings. This group was powerful enough to support an overthrow of his regime. Faced with pressures from within and outside the country, Sánchez Hernández portrayed the Arellano government as the true culprit undermining Honduran stability.

Tensions mounted during the months leading up to a series of soccer matches scheduled between the two countries. On June 6, 1969, Honduras defeated El Salvador 1 to 0 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, following a night during which local fans encamped outside the Salvadorans’ hotel, setting off firecrackers, blowing car horns, and even throwing rocks at the windows. The game was the first of a best-of-three series to determine Central America’s representative to the World Cup playoffs, and the winning goal was scored in overtime by Honduran forward Roberto Cardona. Even with the intimidating local conditions, the Salvadorans felt that the outcome was questionable and, with escalating sociopolitical tensions between the countries, the rivalry took on the aura of a quest for nationalistic vindication.

The second match, played in San Salvador at the Flor Blanca Stadium, resulted in a 3-0 rout by the Salvadorans. The nationalistic fervor had peaked in the nine-day interval between the two games, and the real story occurred off the field. The Honduran team needed security protection during their stay, riots occurred in San Salvador, and all spectators attending the game were searched before entering the stadium, resulting in the confiscation of alcohol and weapons. Disrespect for the Honduran national anthem and flag left little doubt that the political tensions were carried onto the pitch. While the team was escorted to the airport following the game, Honduran fans returning home had their car windshields smashed in the rural areas along the border. Back in Honduras, Salvadoran shops were vandalized and boycotted.

Tensions escalated, and more Salvadorans fled Honduras following increasing acts of violence. The Salvadoran government struggled to provide services to these returning emigrants, who forced the Sánchez Hernández administration to recognize that it was losing its support base. Claims by both countries’ news services and governments served to inflame their citizens to action. Demonstrations occurred, and border attacks flourished.

The final game between the two nations was played in Mexico City, Mexico. El Salavador prevailed 3 to 2 in overtime, after trailing 2 to 1 at the half. Regardless of the game’s outcome, the tensions between the Hondurans and the Salvadorans had become so great that it seemed inevitable that diplomatic relations between the two nations would be broken. It was only a matter of time. Observers felt that each country’s media, whether spurred on by the government, the military, or another entity, was largely responsible for the extremity of the situation and for fanning the flames of the increasing violence.

During the late afternoon of July 14, 1969, following a reportedly brief Honduran air incursion, the Salvadoran air force and army attacked targets in Honduras, beginning with Tegucigalpa. By the next day, Honduras retaliated with its stronger air force, hitting crucial oil storage tanks at two port cities, Acajutla and Cutuco. Eventually the Salvadoran army occupied about five miles of Honduran territory on two fronts, including the provincial capital of Nueva Ocotepeque. Sánchez Hernández sought military assistance from the United States, which had supplied both countries with military and economic aid in the past. Within hours, the Salvadoran progress had stalled on the ground and the Honduran air force’s superiority had been established. The Salvadoran advance was thwarted when Honduras crippled El Salvador’s oil and fuel storage facilities and supply routes.

The Organization of American States Organization of American States (OAS) met on July 15 and called for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Salvadoran troops from Honduran territory. Many governments worldwide called for an end to the fighting. El Salvador ignored the pressure from the OAS for several days, holding out for reparations from Honduras for its attacks on Salavadoran citizens, as well as assurances that no harm would come to Salvadorans still remaining in Honduras. Finally, OAS ministers meeting in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Secretary-General Galo Plaza Lasso of Ecuador persuaded the two countries to negotiate an end to the hostilities.

A cease-fire was arranged on July 18, but it was not fully implemented until July 20. Even then, El Salvador remained defiant, waiting until early August fully to withdraw its troops from occupied territory. Even then, the Salvadorans withdrew only in response to threats of economic sanctions. They did succeed, however, in securing assurances of safety for the Salvadorans remaining in Honduras.

The death toll of the brief war was estimated at two to three thousand killed and at least twice as many injured. As many as fifty thousand people living within the border region were rendered homeless by the conflict. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans left Honduras, damaging the economic prosperity of several areas of the country. Scholars often cite this war as the last use of World War II-era, piston-engine aircraft on both sides of the battle lines. Reportedly, the Salvadoran air force was so outdated that its members threw bombs by hand from the windows of their aircraft. In 1980, the countries agreed to a broader peace treaty, referring the ongoing border dispute to the International Court of Justice. The disagreements fueling the war were not officially ended until September 11, 1992, when the World Court at The Hague, Netherlands, awarded Honduras approximately two-thirds of the disputed land and ordered the two countries to share the Gulf of Fonseca with Nicaragua.

Significance

In the wake of the Soccer War, trade, communication, and transportation between El Salvador and Honduras was disrupted throughout the 1970’s. An already unstable Central American Common Market was rendered impotent, while the Organization of American States enjoyed admiration from the world for mediating an end to the war. While renewed nationalism on the part of both countries was inevitable, Hondurans passionately embraced the opportunity to defend their country against their invading and economically superior neighbor. Meanwhile, public support for the military in El Salvador, which maintained the administration of Sánchez Hernández, ultimately diminished, primarily because of the army’s perceived ineffectiveness. On the other hand, the Honduran military took notice of the citizenry’s active involvement in defending the country and, in turn, gave greater attention to social needs of the population for a short time.

For much of the next decade, the military maintained control of Honduran politics. El Salvador’s economy was hindered by the cost of the war, while the nation’s overpopulation emerged as a more visible issue, most notably in terms of land and wealth distribution and unemployment. Whatever national unity was enjoyed during the war was eventually eroded by dissatisfaction with the government’s policies. The military responded to this dissatisfaction with repression, violating the rights of El Salvador’s citizens and disappearing and torturing dissidents. Social unrest led by student groups, labor unions, political parties, and activist clergy ultimately plunged El Salvador into civil war in 1979. Soccer War (1969) Nationalism;El Salvador Nationalism;Honduras

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Thomas P. The War of the Dispossessed: Honduras and El Salavdor, 1969. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Traces the land ownership and economic aspects leading to the Soccer War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Central America: A Population Explosion.” Time, July 25, 1969, 29-30. Recaps the causes and impact of the Soccer War based on the reportage of correspondents in the field covering the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kapuściński, Ryszard. “The Soccer War.” In The Granta Book of Reportage. London: Granta, 1998. Coverage of the Soccer War chosen for its exemplary quality, as well as the information it imparts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skidmore, T., and P. Smith. Modern Latin America. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Overview of geopolitical and socioeconomic issues of El Salvador and Honduras.

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