A game of life and death

As the Honduras and El Salvador football teams meet this week, Simon Kuper looks back to when ill-feeling spilt over into a war.

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In June 1969 Amelia Bolaños was an 18-year-old Salvadorean watching the Honduras-El Salvador game at home on TV. It was a big game: the two old rivals were meeting over two legs, with the winner qualifying for the World Cup in Mexico. In the last minute of the first leg, Honduras scored.

At that, wrote the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski, chief chronicler of the Football War, Bolaños "got up and ran to the desk which contained her father's pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart". Though Bolaños could not have imagined it, she had fired the first shot of an actual war. Her funeral was televised. El Salvador's president, ministers and the country's football team walked behind the flag-draped coffin. A month later El Salvador and Honduras fought a bizarrely overlooked four-day war. Perhaps more than any other event, the Football War captures the dark side of the game's power.

That first game, in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on June 8 1969, was barely any nastier than the average Central American football international. That is to say, before the match the Honduran fans surrounded the hotel where the El Salvadore players were staying, and kept them up all night with stones, firecrackers, abuse and so on. El Salvador duly lost 1-0, prompting Bolaños's suicide. "Nobody in the world paid any attention," writes Kapuscinski.

After all, these were two small poor coffee-exporting nations that had never before qualified for a World Cup nor done much else to make the world notice them. Only Hondurans and Salvadoreans cared about these matches. The return match, in San Salvador a week later, was more bitter than usual. Just for starters, the visiting Honduran players were kept up all night. "The screaming crowd of fans broke all the windows in the hotel and threw rotten eggs, dead rats and stinking rags inside," writes Kapus-cinski.

There is another wonderfully vivid, if not altogether reliable, account of their visit by Lorenzo Dee Belveal, an American economist and occasional writer who spent a lot of time in Honduras. His six-volume autobiography YANQUI is the second-best eyewitness account of the war. "When the Hondurans arrived in the neighbouring capital the reception was a lot like the one the lions used to give the Christians in the Roman Coliseum: we're glad you're here, and you will find out why," he writes.

Belveal claims the Honduran team's hotel was burned down. That may have been the sort of poetic licence required to fill a six-volume autobiography. The next day the Honduran team travelled to the stadium in armoured cars, while Salvadoreans lined the route holding up photographs of their martyr, Bolaños. The pitch was surrounded by armed soldiers. "Instead of the Honduran flag - which had been burned before the eyes of the spectators, driving them wild with joy - the hosts ran a dirty, tattered dishrag up the flagpole," writes Kapuscinski. El Salvador won 3-0.

"We're awfully lucky that we lost," said the Honduran coach Mario Griffin as his team fled home. According to Belveal, "When the futbolistas got back to Tegucigalpa and began recounting their experiences in the sister republic, righteous indignation burst into flame. "Goon-squads of Tegucigalpa fans mounted a rumble against resident Salvadoreans that quickly turned into a very heavy scene. In addition to black eyes and cracked heads, bones were broken and people were killed."

Each team having won once, a deciding game was required. It was played in the Aztec Stadium in Mexico on June 27 1969. The footage that survives is of appalling quality, partly because it rained during the game, but you can clearly make out a Salvadorean sliding home the winning goal in extra-time after a Honduran defender makes the umpteenth defensive blunder of the game. The instant the goal goes in, cameramen invade the penalty area and start snapping the scorer. El Salvador had qualified for the World Cup, where a year later they would lose all their three games without scoring a goal.

The football cliché to use at this point would be "It's all over". But in this case it had only just begun. The matches had inspired the newspapers of both countries to frenzies of nationalism. Kapuscinski writes that each side called the other "Nazis, dwarfs, drunkards, sadists, spiders, aggressors and thieves". A word here about the great Pole, because without him the war might have been forgotten long ago. Kapuscinski was for years the only foreign correspondent of communist Poland.

His job was to go around the Third World reporting on great events. He did so in a clear, almost childlike magical-realist prose that has outlived him (He died in 2007, aged 74, in Warsaw). In all, he witnessed 27 coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times. In between he camped out in the unlikeliest of places. "I am living on a raft in a side-street in the merchant district of Accra," are the opening lines of one of his collections of reportage, The Soccer War. It is a great tome, partly because when the collection was first published in Polish in 1988 as Wojna futbolowa, hardly anyone had yet written about the football-politics nexus.

While El Salvador and Honduras were playing their trilogy of matches, Kapuscinski was based in Mexico City. He claims that he headed down to Tegucigalpa after the second game, figuring that something would happen. At any rate, he reports that when he arrived in Tegucigalpa the city was covered in angry graffiti: ONLY AN IMBECILE WORRIES NOBODY BEATS HONDURAS PORFIRIO RAMOS SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF HIMSELF FOR LIVING WITH A SALVADORAN WOMAN

Then, writes Kapuscinski: "At dusk a plane flew over Tegucigalpa and dropped a bomb. Everybody heard it." This was on July 14. Kapuscinski claims he was the only foreign correspondent in town. There was a blackout, so he typed up his report in the dark, got firemen to take him through the night to the town's only telex machine, waited until the president had finished sending his own anxious telexes, and then sent his report to Poland. Kapuscinski spent the rest of the night outside, unable to find his hotel in the dark.

The Football War was not actually about football, although it was clearly the trigger for the fighting. The big issue between the two nations was land. El Salvador, the most densely populated country in the western hemisphere, does not have enough of it. Its territory is just one-sixth the size of Honduras, but in 1970 it had 3.5 million inhabitants, nearly a million more than Honduras. Inevitably, 300,000 Salvadoreans, most of them peasants, had drifted into Honduras.

This caused irritation in Honduras. The Honduran government had already confiscated some land from Salvadoreans before the war broke out. The war was a primitive affair, the last to be fought by piston-engined American warplanes left over from the Second World War. Most of the combatants on the ground were confused and under-equipped peasants. Kapuscinski watched a Honduran orderly "with a lancet in his hand, going from one casualty to another and digging the bullets out of them, as if he were paring the core out of an apple". It was difficult even for the soldiers to know who was on whose side. More than 2,000 people were killed in the war, most of them Hondurans. Many more were injured. Salvadorean migrants in Honduras were rounded up in football stadiums.

Quickly the Organization of American States pressured the two countries to call a ceasefire. The war ended after 100 hours. "The war ended in a stalemate. The border remained the same," writes Kapuscinski. "Both governments are satisfied: for several days Honduras and El Salvador occupied the front pages of the world press, the only chance small countries have of evoking a lively international interest is when they decide to shed blood. This is a sad truth, but so it is."

They would have got a lot more international interest had their timing not been dreadful. Two days after the war began, on July 16, the Apollo 11 mission carrying the first astronauts headed for the moon was launched from Cape Kennedy in Florida. Kapuscinski heard the news on the radio during the war, while crammed among Honduran soldiers in a village hut. On July 20, the day the ceasefire took effect, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. One event rather overshadowed the other.

The aftermath was not pretty. Many of the Salvadoran migrants in Honduras returned home. That worsened El Salvador's overpopulation, and contributed to the outbreak of a 12-year civil war in 1980. El Salvador and Honduras occasionally exchanged gunshots across the border, until in 2006 the countries' presidents agreed on a frontier and shook hands across it. We remember the war as an extreme expression of the nationalist force inherent in football. In most countries there is no more nationalist event than a big game.

Those 11 young men on the pitch are the nation, more alive than the flag, less particular than the monarch. That is why football can bring nationalist emotions to fever pitch. Yet nothing else in the game's history parallels the war. Holland-Germany matches, to cite one fierce rivalry, have occasionally sparked small riots along the countries' shared border, the closest the European Union gets to war these days.

The Football War encapsulates one aspect of the power of football: the game as a divider. But at other times, the game has an equally strong power to unite. Besides eating, drinking and dying, the only thing that billions of people have in common is football. A match can create bad feelings - France-Germany or England-Argentina - but it is also an occasion when both countries co-operate. They play by agreed rules, and even though they may quarrel, the loser accepts that the winner proceeds. Then the whole world talks about the same thing.

Honduras-El Salvador games probably still remain nearer the football-as-war model. We will learn more on Wednesday when the two teams meet in a World Cup qualifying match, this time in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Both countries have made it to the final qualifying group of six teams from North and Central America. Three countries will make it to South Africa next year. The two teams will meet in a return match in San Salvador, on Oct 14. Once again, that game may decide which of the two nations go to the tournament.