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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

When World Cup qualifying touched off the 100-hour Soccer War.

By John Haydon
Special to SoccerTimes

(Friday, January 22, 1999) -- Recent suggestions that the World Cup be held every two years instead of fours serves as a reminder that the most-watched sports event on the globe is always a release valve for passionate soccer fans to vent their nationalistic pride.

There's nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn't lead to war. That was the case 28 years ago when Honduras and El Salvador met in qualifying play and sparked off a conflict for ever dubbed, the "Soccer War."

The two teams were playing for a place in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The first game was on June 8, 1969 in Honduras. The Honduran fans made sure the visiting El Salvadoran team had no sleep, by beating empty barrels and letting of firecrackers all night long outside the team’s hotel.

Inevitably the exhausted Salvadorans were defeated 1-0 One fan watching the televised game in El Salvador shot herself in the heart when Honduras scored in the final minute. Her death stirred the passions of her countrymen and her funeral was televised live to the nation. The president of the Republic and the whole El Salvador soccer team walked behind the flag-draped casket.

When the Honduran team came to San Salvador for the return game, it arrived at a stadium surrounded by tanks and armored trucks. The field inside was circled by gun toting soldiers.

To the dismay of the visiting side, a dirty dishrag was hoisted during their national anthem instead of the national flag.

Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski in his book 'The Soccer War' wrote, "Under such conditions the players from Tegucigalpa did not, understandably have their minds on the game. They had their minds on getting out alive."

The Honduran team inevitably lost 3-0. "We were lucky we lost." said the visiting coach. But the visiting fans were not so lucky. Many were beaten, and two died. Hundreds of the visiting fans cars were set on fire.

A final deciding game was held on neutral territory in Mexico with 5,000 Mexican police officers separating the fans. El Salvador won that game 3-2 but both teams eventually qualified for the World Cup in Mexico the following year.

It was this third game that ignited the longtime feud between the countries and set off what has become known as the Soccer War.

To call it the Soccer War is unfair. The war was really over a border dispute. The three qualifying games were unfortunately played at a time when tensions between the countries had reached a boiling point and the games merely ignited a volatile situation.

El Salvador a small, crowded country wanted to become a two-ocean power and sought to cut a strip through the larger and less populated Honduras to the Atlantic Ocean and protect the rights of 300,000 Salvadorans who had settled in Honduras.

The Soccer War lasted 100 hours leaving 6,000 dead and 12,000 wounded. The war ended in a stalemate and the territorial dispute between the two countries was finally mediated by the International Court of Justice in 1992.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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