War games: Honduras v El Salvador

Honduras and El Salvador's 1969 World Cup qualifiers sparked The Football War. As the two faced up again last summer in a bid to reach South Africa, Henry Mance wondered if they were still battling over the beautiful game 40 years on...

Sometimes the more you read about Latin America, the more you find yourself asking: are they that crazy? The usual answer – especially where Hugo Chavez or donkeys have got anything to do with it – is yes, indeed they are.

But even by Banana Republic standards, the idea that Honduras and El Salvador fought a war over football requires a double take. The tale dates from 1969, when the two countries followed up a series of three World Cup qualifiers almost immediately with a military conflict that killed somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 people.

The fighting only lasted 100 hours before a regional outbreak of sanity brokered a truce. Yet by then the headlines had been written. This was ‘The Football War’. After all, as the great Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski was told by a friend, in Latin America the line between politics and football is often vague.a

Peace and love? Not in 1969 If any qualifying campaign could have caused a war, this was it. Foul-tempered doesn’t even come close. Before the first game, held in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on June 8 1969, the El Salvadorian side were kept up all night by riotous fans outside their hotel. They went on to lose 1-0. When the goal was scored – after about 10 minutes of injury time – one El Salvadorian lady back home reportedly shot herself through the heart. She was given a televised funeral, intended to whip up nationalist fervour before the return fixture a week later.

Back on home territory, the El Salvadorians took the chance to repay Honduras’s inhospitality. As soon as the Hondurans arrived at the airport, they knew they’d bitten off more than they could chew.

Their star player was Enrique ‘The Rabbit’ Cardona, whose pace and prowess in front of goal had propelled him from a United Fruit Company banana farm to Atletico Madrid. The El Salvadorians welcomed Cardona with posters of him being sexually assaulted by a considerably larger rabbit. Other posters showed anyone vaguely black in the Honduran side with a bone through their nostrils.

“I was used to that kind of stuff, but I could see my team-mates were upset,” remembers Cardona. “Then on the Friday before the game, the El Salvadorians killed two people outside our hotel. We went to stay in the Embassy instead.” Whatever sleep they got presumably didn’t prepare them for a rag being raised instead of the Honduran national flag during the pre-match national anthem.

Given the circumstances, the 3-0 pummelling the Hondurans got on the pitch seemed a victory of sorts. The team coach was quoted as saying. “We’re awfully lucky that we lost. Otherwise we wouldn’t be alive today.” The results left both countries’ hopes of becoming the first Central American side to qualify for the World Cup hinging on a deciding third match, to be played in Mexico City.

According to the El Salvadorian coach at the time, the Argentine Gregorio ‘Goyo’ Bundio, the whole team was called to the president’s house before the game. “He gave us some sweet bread and soft drinks and told me that – as a foreigner – I had to defend the national colours, because this match was for our national dignity”.

Bundio and his assistant, who hadn’t actually been paid for six months, went as far as enrolling as military reservists – “We weren’t going to hide under the bed!” – but that show of patriotism would hardly appease the president if they didn’t win on the pitch. “How could we go back to El Salvador defeated?” remembers Bundio. “So we played 120 minutes in Mexico with the altitude, with the cold, and with the continual rain.”

An estimated five thousand Salvadorians had travelled to the game, some doing the 770-mile journey on motorbike. El Salvador twice took the lead, but Honduras drew level, thanks to build-up from Cardona. In the second half, Bundio told his defenders to deal the striker in the only way they could.

“They kicked me off the pitch!” remembers Cardona, more out of disbelief than indignance. “I got a boot right in the chest. I’ve played in Spain, in England, in Ireland, and it’s never happened to me since.” Honduras’s attacking threat was blunted, and right at the death Mon Rodríguez headed El Salvador’s winner. Bundio puts the victory down to the details: not eating in the hotel for fear of food poisoning, buying new boots for the slippery Azteca pitch, and ensuring that his players all touched their testicles before the game “so they didn’t leave them in the dressing room”.

But his El Salvadorian side was also something more: an attack-minded 4-4-2, with players rotating in and out of the striking positions. It’s likely that the country with the better team went to the 1970 World Cup – but only after its army and propeller planes had invaded Honduras.

War plus the shootingThe fighting was nasty, brutish and almost farcical. Ryszard Kapuscinki spent some of it with a Honduran soldier who was more interested in collecting dead men’s shoes for his family than obeying orders. “We soldiers didn’t have a clue,” says another Honduran veteran, Jose Luis Gutiérrez, who lost two relatives and a close friend in the war. “Only later did it come out that they’d be planning it all along. We went to war not knowing what we were fighting for or why. They just told us to defend the national sovereignty.”

El Salvador, with a better-prepared military, had dreamed of extending its tiny territory right across Honduras to the Atlantic. Nonetheless, six days after the invasion, its forces were bogged down a few kilometres from the border. So the two governments signed up to a truce, and limited their future disagreements to minor skirmishes and major court cases.

Salvadorian soldiers aim for Honduras

Veteran Gutierrez got out of the conflict with only a bout of blood dysentery. Today, however, he still leaves his military ID at home when he travels across the border, just in case someone still bears a grudge. And football against that country is never just a game. “I watched the match against the US [which Honduras had just lost]. It didn’t bother me. But I get really worked up when we play El Salvador. The younger generations don’t, but those of us who lived it all first-hand do.”

And yet it doesn’t take long to realise that football only explains so much of the 1969 conflict. “Why would we invade them if we’d won the game?” says Ricardo Padilla, an El Salvadorian sports entrepreneur who is currently in the business of becoming president of the national FA.

At most, the qualifiers were the straw that broke the camel’s back. “They abused football. They took advantage of us,” complains one surviving player about the politicians of the day. The countries’ real squabbles were very much off the pitch. Hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorians were living in Honduras illegally and, to the fury of El Salvadorian government, Honduran politicians were from the Nick Griffin school for political opportunity.

In the months of the war, and the war itself, up to 300,000 El Salvadorians were expelled from Honduras. Had it all come to a head a year earlier, the war would lie in the annals of forgotten Latin American bloodbaths, alongside Ecuador-Peru and Bolivia-Chile. A whole line of souvenir shirts would never have been born.

War is a long time agoFour decades later, all-out war has subsided into friendly banter. El Salvadorians accuse the whole Honduran nation of general laziness, but Hondurans themselves don’t much care. “Well, it’s true. They work harder than us,” shrugs one.

The 1969 war, claims Honduras’s Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda before last June's fixture, “doesn’t even go through the players’ minds”. In any case, the two sides made footballing peace on route to the 1986 World Cup. In order to qualify for the finals, El Salvador needed Honduras – who were already through – to get a result at home against Mexico. A grudge-bearing country would have needed no second invitation to play as if it were managed by Ossie Ardiles, but Honduras decided to play properly and actually held Mexico 0-0. The El Salvadorians were so grateful they invited the Honduras squad to visit as a thank-you.

When El Salvador went on to lose 10-1 to Hungary in that World Cup, one of those in the stadium was ‘Rabbit’ Cardona. “I thought it would make me happy [to see them lose]. But it didn’t,” he says, as mangoes clatter onto the tin roof of his house.

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Over the last few years the rivalry has been dulled by the fact that Honduras have quite simply been better. They are ranked 35 in the world before kick-off, just below the Republic of Ireland and above Ghana. You have to drop 75 places to find El Salvador, sandwiched between Cuba and Zimbabwe. Six of the Honduras squad play in Europe and four in North America; El Salvador’s team is almost entirely nationally based. The only El Salvadorian to have ever made a mark abroad – Jorge ‘Magico’ Gonzalez, who played for Cadiz in the 1980s – is now better known as a drug addict.

So low is the benchmark of success in El Salvadorian football that there is a plaque in the lobby of the national FA that congratulates the country on just building its headquarters, headquarters whose pitches don’t even meet FIFA standards. Then again, the association president Rodrigo Calvo probably has more urgent things to worry about: investigators recently raided his offices on a widely-believed suspicion that he’s been bulk-selling match tickets to the black market.

Head-to-head results against Honduras offer El Salvador little comfort. The teams have spent less time on the pitch than the 100 hours they spent on the battlefield. And now the threat of being invaded has receded, Honduras probably would like to play El Salvador more often. Of the 58 meetings between the two sides, they've won 28, compared to El Salvador’s 12. El Salvador have never won a qualifier in Honduras; last time they made the trip, they were spanked 5-0.

Yet in the week before the game, the momentum swings. Honduras lose in the USA, while El Salvador beat a post-Sven-Goran Eriksson Mexico line-up at home. Suddenly El Salvador have the third qualification spot to themselves. 
That leaves the June 10 game in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as mathematically crucial for both sides’ qualification chances. Throw in two major earthquakes in the country in the days before the encounter, and FIFA is quick to classify the game as “high-risk”.

However, the atmosphere is anything but. The whole country is so laid back that you begin to wonder how Reinaldo Rueda manages to get 11 players on the pitch on time. Compared to their British counterparts, the autograph-hunters and journalists hanging around the Honduran squad’s lodgings are so lethargic they appear almost normal human beings. “If David Beckham came here, they’d hassle him for 10 minutes then lose interest,” says one local hack.

There’s one man who does look in a hurry – a scout apparently working with Steve Bruce. He scurries around the hotel lobby, hugging Wilson Palacios, and sitting down for a coffee with the high-rated Hendry Thomas and Ramon Nunez. He tries to duck photos, apparently failing to realise that the hotel lobby has glass walls. Within 10 minutes, news of the meeting is splashed over local internet sites. As scouting goes, it’s so unsubtle that all involved really owe Sir Robert Baden-Powell a written apology.

The interest of Premier League clubs in Honduran polayers was sparked by the success story of Palacios, first at Wigan, now at Spurs, who is now the team’s undisputed star. He left Honduras as a creative midfielder whose Hollywood balls tended to go straight to video. Yet a year deciphering Bruce at Wigan made him into a polished ball-winner. The death of Palacios’s brother – found murdered 18 months after he was kidnapped, despite the payment of a $500,000 ransom – means that no one is expecting too much of the him against El Salvador.

El Salvador, meanwhile, don’t really have any stars. Apart from Eliseo ‘Cheyo’ Quintanilla who plays ‘in the hole’, they’re a young, hard-working side who have been developed by Mexican coach Carlos de los Cabos over the past couple of years. His Honduras counterpart Rueda complains that this gives them an almost unfair advantage, given that the squad can get together to train whenever it wants. But whether extra Playstation bonding can really overcome the gulf in class remains to be seen.

Back in oppositionOn the day of the game, the atmosphere in the Olympic Stadium in San Pedro Sula is reminiscent of the 1960s that Honduras and El Salvador never had – a few V-signs apart, it’s all brotherly love. Of course, brotherly love is much easier to achieve when both teams play in the same colours – nobody can quite work out which fans to attack.

A few years ago, the Hondurans used to chant “We’re going to the World Cup”, and the reply came: “To watch El Salvador play”. Now it’s just “Honduras”, followed by “Gay!” It’s hardly likely to cause a riot. Then as the players shake hands, the El Salvadorian captain, Ramon Sanchez, stops to hugs Wilson Palacios, presumably in sympathy at his brother’s death.

The love-in comes to an abrupt end with the referee’s whistle. Palacios, positioned like a Rottweiler on a leash from his centre-backs, treats the El Salvadorian midfield to a few reducers apiece. Such is Honduras’s early dominance that they start accusing El Salvador of timewasting... after about five minutes, which surely some kind of record. Erstwhile Birmingham City striker Carlo Costly – son of legendary defender Anthony Costly – has a brief slapping match with the El Salvadorian captain, before his veteran strike-partner Carlos Pavon pokes home the opener, his 10th goal against El Salvador.

A pre-game rumour had said that some gang members were planning on coming to the game. In the event, it turns out you don’t need gang members for there to be bloodshed at the Stadio Olímpico. Twenty minutes in, the Honduran police kick a middle-aged El Salvadorian fan down the stairs, while another gets a smack in the face. “But we’re Central American brothers...” another of the travelling contingent blurts out.

Then the El Salvadorians start turning on each other. A spilled beer quickly leads to broken nose, and two groups of a dozen, hard-arsed El Salvadorians wade in furiously. Nearby the police quickly decide they aren’t going to risk staining their riot shields for this lot. “You guys are crazy, fighting among the same nation,” says a passing Honduran, inexplicably selling green and white hats.

The blood more or less dries up in time for the El Salvadorians to jeer Costly as he misses the kind of stooping header that Harry Redknapp’s missus puts away for fun. From then on, the game gradually nods off. It becomes, if not exactly men against boys, then men against bigger men. El Salvador’s dainty side neatly spread the ball out to the wings, and Honduras dutifully head out their poor crosses.

The size difference is almost comical: following a clash of heads, El Salvador’s William Reyes tries to inject a rare bit of sportsmanship into the game by pulling the Honduran centre-back Osman Chavez to his feet, but Chavez is too heavy and Reyes wanders off slightly humiliated.
It stays 1-0 until the final whistle. The chat varies from the predictable – “No way Honduras deserve to win playing like that” – to the inexplicable – “It is totally unforgivable to kill a cat”.

Outside the stadium, the Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, blessed with a moustache Super Mario would die for, is determined to soak up some reflected glory. He leans on the door of his parked 4x4, waving to the fans and kissing the odd baby. Seeing this cringe-worthy spectacle, the Hondurans turn the El Salvadorians’ chant against their own leader: “Gay! Gay! Gay!”

That’s about as blurred as the border between football and politics gets these days. The Football War that never really was is now barely a scuffle.

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