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Football - a Matter of Life and Death

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Football and politics in Latin America are inseparable - it is impossible to have one without the other. The future of many regimes has been decided by the outcome of a football match and nothing seems to ignite national fervour more than pride in your team. There is one match in particular which remains a testament to just how seriously people take their football in Latin America. It all started on 8 June, 1969, and ended four and bit days later with thousands dead and the future of two countries in the balance.

Two Matches and One Martyr

1969 was an important year for football as nations around the world were participating in the qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. On 8 June, the El Salvadoran national team was set to play Honduras in the Honduran national stadium in Tegucigalpa. The El Salvadoran team arrived the night before and went to their hotel where they were greeted by a hostile crowd. In the tradition of psychological football warfare, the Hondurans harassed the El Salvadoran team by throwing stones at their hotel windows, by letting off fireworks, and by sounding their horns throughout the night. The team slept badly and it was no surprise that the El Salvadorans lost 1-0.

This would have been the end of a matter - a minor blip in the history of football violence - had it not been for Amelia Bolanios. This 18-year-old El Salvadoran, after witnessing the Honduran goal, shot herself in the heart with her father's pistol. She had made herself into a true martyr for football. Her funeral turned out to be a state affair and her coffin was accompanied by a military guard of honour. The President of the Republic, his ministers and the national team all followed in the cortege.

Due to the then intricacies of football rules, the two teams tied in points so a rematch had to be played. This time the Honduran national team had to go to the Flor Blancal stadium in San Salvador. On this occasion, it was the Hondurans who were harassed, but the stakes were raised due to the rampant nationalism and pride caused by the 'martyrdom' of Amelia Bolanios - hotel windows were smashed and rotten meat and stinking animal carcasses were thrown into the rooms.

The following day, Honduras was escorted to the stadium in armoured vehicles and the stadium and pitch were ringed with soldiers wielding sub-machine guns. The Honduran national anthem was played to little avail as it could not be heard over the jeering of the predominantly local crowd. To add insult to injury, the organisers had burnt the Honduran flag in front of the players and raised a dirty dishcloth up the flag pole in its stead.

Understandably Honduras lost 3-0.

After the match, the Honduran team was whisked away to the airfield and flown back home. Their faithful fans in San Salvador had to run for the border - and their lives. In the ensuing mayhem, several people died and hundreds were hospitalised. The border between the two countries was sealed within a matter of hours.

The War

At dusk the following day, an El Salvadoran plane flew over the Tegucigalpa and dropped a bomb. In a city of then 250,000 this made one hell of a impact. The city and its people ground to a halt; shops closed for business, restaurants never opened and many cars were left abandoned. A blackout swiftly ensued.

The President, via the only Telex machine in Tegucigalpa, appealed for help from the US via his ambassador in Washington. To add to the nightmare, a tropical storm broke out that evening, rendering the blacked-out city vulnerable with occasional lightning flashes.

Cross border gun fire and shelling developed through the night and soldiers and civilians alike were settling in for war - trenches were being dug on the border and people were hoarding in the cities. Graffiti, the greatest social commentary in Latin America sprung up, revealing the depth of national pride:

Only an imbecile worries - nobody beats Honduras
Pick up your guns and let's go guys
Cut those Salvadorans down to size

On both sides of the border, citizens of each country were rounded up and put into national stadiums which served as prison camps. Border villages in both countries were shelled and destroyed, scattering their inhabitants far and wide. Entire villages were seen piling up possessions and marching to safer climes - an image that would haunt the latter half of the 20th Century.

The two countries came under increasing international pressure to end the conflict and eventually did so under pressure from neighbouring Latin American states. The war lasted a little over 100 hours, but left over 6000 dead, 15,000 injured and many thousands more homeless. A peace treaty was signed in 1980 but, to this day, there is sporadic cross-border gun fire.

And why, you may be asking, had you not heard about this? The answer is that the world's attention was focused on Apollo 11 - the first mission to put man on the Moon...

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