July 14, 1969 Tensions heightened by a World Cup qualifying match which saw Central American neighbours Honduras and El Salvador go to war.
The army of El Salvador went into action for the first time ever on this day in 1969, crossing the border to invade neighbouring Honduras and beginning the conflict now known as ‘The Football War’.
Tensions between the neighbouring countries had been rising for a number of years through disputes over their ill-defined shared border, and the influx of thousands of mainly poor immigrants from overcrowded El Salvador into the sparsely-populated south west of Honduras.
Resentment began to grow among Hondurans, especially in rural areas. Under political pressure, the Honduran government had enacted land reforms that by 1967 were resulting in the expulsion of thousands of Salvadorians, who returned with tales of ill-treatment at their neighbours’ hands.
The two nations were also facing off in a qualifying group to reach the 1970 World Cup finals. Honduras won the first match in their capital Tegucigalpa on June 8, 1969, after which violent clashes occurred. A week later, the return game in San Salvador saw the home side claim a 3-0 victory.
Rioting in the wake of the second game saw lives lost among fans of both nations, but a play-off match, played in neutral Mexico City, was now required to separate the teams. El Salvador scored in extra time to win 3-2 and advance to a final match against Haiti to determine qualification.
On the same day, El Salvador’s government cut diplomatic ties with Honduras, for failing to punish alleged crimes against Salvadorian immigrants, or offer any reparations for their expulsion. The following day, Honduras followed suit.
As tensions rose, a number of border skirmishes occurred until El Salvador launched their assault by land and air on their neighbours on July 14. They would advance 8km, taking nine cities, until their advance was halted by a lack of ammunition and fuel.
The Organization of American States (OAS) intervened and forced a cease-fire on July 18, though El Salvador did not withdraw its troops until August 2. Estimates of the number killed in the conflict range as high as 5,000, with tens of thousands more displaced by the fighting.
The Football War – Did you know? Honduras vs El Salvador Football War Facts
Honduras is five times larger than El Salvador, but at the time its population was somewhat smaller – around 2,300,000 people, to El Salvador’s three million. At the time, El Salvador was second only to Haiti worldwide in population density.
After the first play-off match won by Honduras in Tegucigalpa, an 18-year-old Salvadoran girl called Amelia Bolaños allegedly shot herself in the heart out of grief, and became a kind of martyr. Her televised funeral was attended by the President and the national football team.
When the Honduras squad arrived for the return match in San Salvador, they had to be escorted by armoured vehicles and protected by soldiers. According to accounts at the time, Salvadorian officials burned the Honduran flag and hoisted a “dirty dishrag” in its place.
El Salvador had a larger army than Honduras, but a smaller air force; when Honduras bombed the Salvadoran airbase at Ilopango, they destroyed planes and also significant supplies of oil, which slowed the advance of the Salvadorian land forces.
El Salvador only agreed to the ceasefire in the face of economic sanctions by the OAS, and after that organisation agreed to send observers to ensure the security of migrant Salvadorians in Honduras.
The World Cup decider between El Salvador and Haiti also required a play-off, this time in neutral Jamaica. El Salvador triumphed 1-0, again after extra time, to advance to their first-ever appearance in the World Cup finals the following year.
Most of those who died in the Football War were civilians – as many as 2,000 from Honduras and around 900 from El Salvador. A peace treaty was finally signed in 1980; in spite of this, relations between the neighbours remain tense.
Football War Photos 1969 Honduras vs El Salvador