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The Soccer War


Design for a Central American battlefield

Published in the June 1986 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Soccer War” recounts a 100-hour-long conflict that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador on July 14, 1969, only weeks after the two countries competed against each other in a qualifying round of the 1970 FIFA World Cup. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to the full essay, along with our 165-year archive. 


From a Wall Street Journal report, published May 27, 2015, on the U.S. Justice Department’s fraud, racketeering, and money-laundering indictments of current and former FIFA officials.

For fans [in Latin America], the sport is akin to a religion—with stadiums sold out and matches broadcast on prime time across the continent. But soccer, experts and fans say, is in trouble, mired in scandal and mismanagement.
     In some countries, games are considered too dangerous for ordinary fans to attend. In Argentina, four players from River Plate were recently hospitalized after fans of an opposing team, Boca Juniors, sprayed them with a tear gas–type irritant.

The first match was held on Sunday, June 8, 1969, in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

Nobody in the world paid any attention.

The Salvadoran team arrived in Tegucigalpa on Saturday and spent a sleepless night in their hotel. The players could not sleep because they were the target of psychological warfare waged by the Honduran fans. A swarm of people encircled the hotel. The crowd threw stones at the windows and beat sheets of tin and empty barrels with sticks. They set off one string of firecrackers after another. They leaned on the horns of cars parked in front of the hotel. The fans whistled, screamed, and set up hostile chants. This went on all night. The idea was that a sleepy, edgy, exhausted team would be bound to lose. In Latin America these are standard practices that surprise no one.

The next day Honduras defeated the Salvadoran squad, 1–0.

Eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanios was sitting in front of her television in San Salvador when Roberto Cardona, the Honduran forward, scored the winning goal in the final minute. She got up, ran to the desk, opened the drawer containing her father’s pistol, and committed suicide by shooting herself in the heart. “The young girl could not bear to see her fatherland brought to its knees,” wrote the Salvadoran newspaper El Nacional the next day. The whole capital took part in the televised funeral of Amelia Bolanios. An army honor guard marched with a flag at the head of the procession. The president of the republic and his ministers walked behind the flag-draped coffin. Behind them came the Salvadoran soccer eleven, who, booed, laughed at, and spat on at the Tegucigalpa airport, had returned to the country on a special flight that morning.

The return match of the home-and-home series took place in San Salvador, in the beautifully named Flor Blanca stadium, a week later. This time it was the Honduran team that spent a sleepless night. The screaming crowd of fans broke all the windows in their hotel and threw rotten eggs, dead rats, and stinking rags inside. The Honduran players were transported to the stadium in armored cars of the First Salvadoran Mechanized Division—which saved them from bloodshed at the hands of the mob that lined the route, holding up portraits of the national heroine Amelia Bolanios.

The army surrounded the stadium. Around the field stood a cordon of soldiers from a crack National Guard regiment, with submachine guns ready to fire. During the playing of the Honduran national anthem the stadium roared and whistled. Next, instead of raising the Honduran flag—which had been burned before the eyes of the spectators, driving them mad with joy—the hosts ran a dirty, tattered dishrag up the flagpole. Under such conditions the players from Tegucigalpa did not, understandably, have their minds on the game.

EI Salvador prevailed, 3–0.

The same armored cars carried the Honduran team straight from the playing field to the airport. A worse fate awaited the visiting fans. Kicked and beaten, they fled toward the Honduran border. Two of them died. Scores landed in the hospital. A hundred and fifty of the visitors’ cars were burned. The border between the two states was closed a few hours later. 

Luis [Suarez] read about all of this in the newspaper and said that there was going to be a war. He had been a reporter for a long time and he knew his beat.

Read the full article here.

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June 1986

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