The Football War today

40 years later, Salvadorans and Hondurans square off again, this time for fun

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WHEATON, Maryland -- The men who build our houses and a few of the women who clean them, were in the street singing with passion and pride even before the game began.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2009 (4863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEATON, Maryland — The men who build our houses and a few of the women who clean them, were in the street singing with passion and pride even before the game began.

More than one was wrapped in his national flag and there were balloons dancing from the steps of the Telvis Night Club in this suburban city, tinted the colours of both of the teams who were meeting in an epochal match.

Outside, there was a man with a wireless microphone urging sportsmanship on spectators and contestants and amity in victory or defeat. But this was not about the Stanley Cup final or the titans of the NBA.

“Who is from El Sal-va-DOR?” the MC cried, and cheering erupted from half of the young men on the sidewalk and echoed from their compatriots in the bar.

“And who is from Hon-DUR-as?” Again, more shouting and bluster from the throng in white and blue.

I went inside, the only gringo in the room, and ordered a beer and sat down next to a big guy named Pedro. He was a Salvadoreño who had lived most of his life in the American capital, where virtually all the handiwork, construction, delivery, and gardening is done by men from the Latin republics, yet Pedro’s passion for his fatherland — and for football — had never waned. Like all the others in the gaudy club, he had come to watch a World Cup qualifying match between his country and its neighbour, an important step on the path toward a place in next year’s finals in South Africa, but more meaningful — to me, at least — as proof of the healing power of time.

It was exactly 40 years ago — during the summer of Apollo 11 and of blissed-out Woodstock — that El Salvador and Honduras went into combat for three deadly days in what came to be known as the Football War. The Salvadoran army pushed deep into Honduran territory before its supply lines were obliterated by the enemy’s propeller-driven air force. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and the enmity persisted for decades. But now the men of both countries could sit together in a foreign tavern and watch a rematch without fear.

The history books say that the Football War began as a dispute involving hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who had migrated from their tiny, overcrowded republic to neighbouring Honduras, seeking land to till. Tensions simmered through the decade, then erupted into rioting during World Cup qualifying matches in each country in mid-July, 1969 — the very week that Neil Armstrong was making his “giant leap for all mankind” on the Sea of Tranquility.

“People from Honduras came to El Salvador stealing, and people from El Salvador came to Honduras stealing, and that started it,” Pedro said. “Football was just the excuse.”

“Did your father join the invasion?” I inquired.

“My father hated violence,” the Salvadoreño replied. “He wouldn’t even let us watch the Three Stooges.”

Next to Pedro was a Honduran named Javier, dressed in his national colours: white and deep blue, with five stars representing the former Spanish provinces of Central America.

“What did you learn about the war in school?” I asked the Hondureño.

“They never said nothing about it,” Javier replied. “But this war was not about soccer. It was because of the two governments. They just made soccer the excuse.”

“Who won?” I teased the two men beside me.

“El Salvador!” beamed Pedro.

“Nobody knows,” Javier sighed.

There was no one at the Telvis Night Club old enough to have been a combatant; all they had were their myths. Pedro spun me a saga of a Salvadoran officer who disguised himself as a Catholic priest and made it all the way to Tegucigalpa and the office of the Honduran president. “That proves we won,” he said.

The teams were on the pitch now in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and we all wished we were there. The giant television screen in Wheaton showed the members of each squad singing their national anthems, joined lustily by the men and women around me.

First, the Salvadorans:

“In the supreme word of peace,

“El Salvador has always nobly dreamed.

“To achieve this has been her eternal endeavour,

“To keep it, her greatest glory.

Then, the Hondurans:

“Your flag is a splendour of sky

“Crossed with a band of snow; “And there can be seen, in its sacred depths, “Five pale blue stars.

In the 14th minute, a Honduran striker named Carlos Pavón — his nation’s all-time leading scorer — blasted a rebound into the Salvadoran net and his countrymen at the Telvis Night Club whooped and whistled and sang. And that was it. There was no other scoring, only a sloppy pastiche of errant shots, innumerable fouls, four yellow cards, and altogether too much diving, whining, shoving, kicking and writhing.

But for El Salvador and Honduras, 40 years later, there was no war.

“It’s over. It’s really over,” my friend Pedro said. “We talk about it together and nothing happens. At least in here.”

Allen Abel is Brooklyn-born Canadian writer and broadcaster based in Washington, D.C.

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