Athletic Rivalry Taken to the Extreme

Every match between rivaling athletic teams is described in terms of a military conflict. Despite that, who would expect much more taunts and fight songs to be used as weapons? When soccer fans gathered to watch El Salvador compete against Honduras, they witnessed more than an athletic rivalry. It was the start of a shooting war.

Relations between Honduras and El Salvador were strained in 1969. Immigration concerns and economic challenges intensified the tensions between the two nations. When teams representing the two nations teams met at a FIFA World Cup qualifier in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, the diplomatic strain was reflected in the interaction of the fans. Honduras won the first game on June 8, 1969. Fighting broke out among fans, leaving a sour note for the second game. It was played one week later in San Salvador, El Salvador. The host country won that game, sparking even more violence. A play-off match took place in Mexico City on June 26. El Salvador won, and later that day El Salvador dissolved all diplomatic ties with Honduras.

Three weeks later the war began. On July 14 the Salvadoran Air Force, using passenger airplanes with explosives strapped to their sides as bombers, attacked targets inside Honduras. Targets included Toncontín International Airport, severely limiting the ability of the Honduran Air Force to respond.

El Salvador launched a ground invasion campaign that initially threatened to completely overrun the smaller Honduran forces. Their advance was halted, however, once the Honduran Air Force was able to recover from the damaging first strike. It was able to attack a Salvadoran airbase on July 16, as well as oil production facilities along the Salvadoran coast.

With help from Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who provided weapons and ammunition, Honduras was able to rally and mount an effective defense. After four days of intense fighting, the countries agreed to an OAS-brokered cease fire.

As a result of what came to be known as The Football War, El Salvador lost about 900 people — mostly civilians. Honduras suffered the loss of about 250 soldiers and 3,000 civilians. Some 300,000 Salvadorans were displaced due to exile or fleeing for safety.

The final peace treaty was not signed until October 30, 1980 — eleven years after the conflict.

Incidentally, the Football War was the last conflict in which piston-engined fighters fought each other. Each country deployed World War II era design aircraft, such as Cavalier P-51D Mustangs, F4U-1, -4 and -5 Corsairs, T-28A Trojans, AT-6C Texans, and  C-47 Skytrains converted into bombers. From that point forward, all warfare would involve at least one side using exclusively jet-engine aircraft.

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