14 July 1969: The Football War kicks off in Central America

There are few pastimes taken more seriously in Latin America than football. And while love of the beautiful game has thankfully never sown the seeds of war, in 1969, it’s been said to have triggered one between El Salvador and Honduras (although it’s more likely the footie simply delayed hostilities).

After all, resentment between the two countries had been simmering away for years. El Salvador, Central America’s smallest and most densely populated country, had one million more citizens than its neighbour, Honduras, which had five times more land. And while Honduras had a largely agrarian economy (Hondurans were the lowest paid on the isthmus), El Salvador’s was more industrialised.

Around 300,000 Salvadoreans crossed over the border in search of farmland, prompting Honduras to pass a law allowing for only their nationals to own land. Salvadoreans already in the country could either register as Hondurans or leave.

Then, amid the heated rhetoric, the two countries faced off against each other to win a coveted place at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. To add to the tension, the matches were agonisingly close.

Fighting between the fans broke out at the first match played in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, with the home side winning 1-0. El Salvador won the return leg in San Salvador 3-0, set against more rioting. The decider was held in neutral Mexico City and won by El Salvador by three goals to two, but only after extra time.

The qualification spot in the bag, El Salvador broke off diplomatic ties with Honduras, accusing the latter of promoting genocide against it citizens with its land ownership law. Two weeks later, the Salvadorean army-backed government of Colonel Fidel Sánchez Hernández ordered an invasion of Honduras. The first troops crossed the border on 14 July 1969.

It was by far the biggest crisis the Organisation of American States (OAS) had faced in its 21-year history, since it had been set up to counter the creeping threat of ‘Castroism’ following the communist takeover in Cuba.

But after initially refusing to budge, El Salvador agreed to withdraw its troops when threatened with economic sanctions. The so-called ‘Football War’ had lasted just over four days.

Also on this day

14 July 1791: the ‘Priestley riots’ sweep Britain

The storming of the Bastille on this day in 1789 sparked a peculiar outbreak of civil unrest two years later in Britain, in support of the king and the Church. Read more here.