Illustration: Luke James
“Eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanos was sitting in front of the TV in El Salvador when Honduran striker Roberto Cardona scored the winning goal in the final minute. She got up and ran to the desk that contained her father’s pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart.”
Polish foreign affairs journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Soccer War reveals effects of the passionate rivalry between two Central American neighbours, who faced each other in qualifying for the 1970 World Cup. El Salvador is much the smaller of the two countries, but in 1969 it had almost double the population of Honduras, and as many as 350,000 Salvadorans had illegally emigrated to Honduras seeking land and opportunity.
But in the 1960s, the Honduran government started cracking down on Salvadoran immigrants — blaming them for the country’s deteriorating economic and political situation, as well as seizing and redistributing land.
With tensions rising between the two governments, the teams were drawn together in the semi-final qualifying phase after winning their respective groups. They would face each other over two games — home and away. The first was in early June 1969, in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Like England at the tournament proper a year later, the Salvadorans fell foul of local fans, engaging in what Kapuscinski calls “psychological warfare”. A crowd gathered outside the team’s hotel, throwing stones, leaning on car horns, chanting, whistling and screaming all night. It worked — Honduras won 1–0, with that last-minute goal that Amelia Bolanos took so badly.
She became a martyr, as El Salvador was whipped into a nationalist frenzy ahead of the return leg. Newspaper El Nacional wrote: “The young girl could not bear to see her fatherland brought to its knees.” Her funeral was televised, with the president and his ministers following the coffin, along with the El Salvador football team, who had returned that morning from Honduras.
A week later, in San Salvador, the Hondurans had an even more wretched night’s sleep. This time, the crowd smashed hotel windows and threw in rotten eggs and dead rats. The team had to be escorted to the stadium in armoured cars, protected from a hostile crowd that lined the route holding up portraits of Bolanos. Three died in rioting before the game. The army surrounded the stadium, with a group of armed soldiers by the side of the pitch. The Honduran flag was burned in front of a baying El Salvador crowd, who watched their team win 3–0. The Hondurans were relieved, their coach noting that they were lucky to have lost or else they might not have escaped with their lives.
Their supporters were less fortunate. Pursued by the still angry Salvadorans, they were kicked and beaten. Dozens ended up in hospital. Two lost their lives. After that, the border was closed.
With the series tied (goal difference was not counted as a deciding factor), a third match was arranged on neutral ground — Mexico City. On June 26 1969, El Salvador won 3–2 after extra time to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
Eighteen days later, with tensions still high following their clashes on the pitch, troops from El Salvador invaded Honduras while repurposed El Salvadoran passenger planes with bombs strapped to the sides dropped their payloads on Honduran targets. Honduras retaliated with airstrikes of their own, rounding up Salvadorans living in the country in football stadiums, ironically.
Brief yet bloody, the ‘Football War’ lasted for just 100 hours, but killed at least 2,000 people, and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
The 1970 World Cup in brief
For the first time the World Cup was broadcast in colour and nothing could match the brilliance of Brazil’s yellow shirts. Mario Zagallo’s men, with Pele and Jairzinho were unstoppable and beat Italy 4-1 in the final and, with this third triumph, retained the Jules Rimet trophy.