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Barefoot in San Salvador: The Soccer War

I just had a few spare moments in San Salvador, El Salvador and at the airport I was watching some teams playing soccer on the television. I remembered something I read about regarding what was dubbed the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. Yes, an actual war with guns, bullets and bleeding dying bodies.…

I just had a few spare moments in San Salvador, El Salvador and at the airport I was watching some teams playing soccer on the television. I remembered something I read about regarding what was dubbed the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. Yes, an actual war with guns, bullets and bleeding dying bodies. Surprised? Right, so was I when I found out about it.

But its okay to be surprised, because the image of futbol (soccer) worldwide is that its a force for bringing together the world in a tournament every four years that fosters a healthy competitive spirit. Its that perfect representative of globalization. It makes us all feel good and channels our positive spirit of nationalism and patriotism into a constructive form of celebration, and loss. Yet, the current crisis with FIFA along with the horrible working conditions found in Qatar speak to the dirty dark side of the international sporting event.

In fact, in 1969 Central America eruptted into war between Honduras and El Salvador during a World Cup qualifying match between the two countries. I first came across this while reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” which is a brilliant piece of prose and collection of soccer facts. Galeano sums up the war with the following sentence “ [t]the lords of land and war did not lose a drop of blood, while two barefoot peoples avenged their identical misfortunes by killing each other with abandon.”

Here’s the longer excerpt from that chapter on the Soccer War:

“…Honduras and El Salvador, two small and very poor Central American countries that for more than a century had been accumulating reasons to distrust one another. Each and always served as the magical explanation for the other’s problems. Hondurans have no work? Because Salvadorans come and take their jobs. Salvadorans are hungry? Because Hondurans mistreat them. both countries believed their neighbor was the enemy, and the relentless military dictatorships of each did all they could to perpetuate the error.

This war was called the Soccer War because the sparks that set off the conflagration were struck in the stadiums of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador. The trouble began during the qualifying rounds for the 1970 World Cup. There were tussles, a few injuries, several deaths. A week later, the two countries broke off relations. Honduras expelled a hundred thousand Salvadoran peasants who had always worked in that country plantings and harvests; Salvadoran tanks crossed the border.

The war lasted a week and killed four thousand people. The two governments, dictatorships forged at a US factory called the School of the Americas, fanned the fires of mutual hatred. In Tegucigalpa the slogan was ‘Honduran, don’t sit still. grab a stick and a Salvadoran kill.’ In San Salvador: ‘Teach those barbarians a lesson.’”

We have to ask questions after reading this passage. Like, why two countries would go to war in the first place? If you know nothing about Central America, you still could get to the root causes of war here by asking more questions.

Even Barefoot Hungry Folks Ask Questions

Just ask yourself some more questions from the excerpt above, like: Why were there hundred thousand (or more) Salvadorans in Honduras? Why were American trained dictators, who we could assume had close ties to the United States, go to war with one another? Why do Hondurans have no work but these thousands of Salvadorans do, and furthermore, why do Salvadorans have to work in Honduras and not in El Salvador? Where was the United States in this whole situation? Why are these two countries so poor, as described by Galeano as “two barefoot peoples”? Finally, why do these countries have “identical misfortunes”, why are they so similar yet fighting, and what are their identical misfortunes?

You have to ask yourself these questions to get to the heart of the war and what it was about. In the same way, I have to ask questions to get to the root causes of migration. The immediate answer one has to the causes of the Soccer War are simplistic, and sensational. To frame the war as being started simply because of the outcome of a world cup qualifying match is quite simplistic and sensational- countries do not go to war over that, no matter how passionate they are about a sport. To say that the root causes of migration are because of gang violence, Narco-trafficking, and a lack of jobs, is just as simplistic (and sensational), yet thats what we are told in the North American press as being the causes of migration from Central America to the United States.

One of the most striking things about my time here is that people ask questions. They don’t preach, but rather they make statements and leave the conversations as a open ended questions. This has been most frustrating for me because I haven’t gotten the answers I wanted to get to. But that is my problem. Its an American perspective to break things down into digestible simplistic rational answers. When I don’t get there, I feel very frustrated. But the thing is why do I expect to get to the an answer that compresses five hundred years of historical and social and cultural developments into a lollipop wrapper response to my question?

Read more about my Central America adventure here, and I even have a mixtape for the trip here. Also, you have to read Geleano’s “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” because its just such a beautifully written and well researched book on the most wonderful game played by the majority of the world, read more/get it here.

Picture is courtesy of Deborah Lee, taken at a technical high school in Progresso, Honduras. Check out more from Deb here.

Response to “Barefoot in San Salvador: The Soccer War”

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    […] When I got back we left for Zion National Park, and I was dealing with a lot of processing from Central America, from my time at Union Theological Seminary, and my own life concerns. So I am in a vulnerable […]

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