Sports can be a powerful instrument of diplomacy. It’s well known that in ancient Greece the Olympic Games stopped wars, but even Richard Nixon understood that mechanism very well. During the détente between USA and China, the American team of ping pong visited the communist country with the excuse of a match. Other times sports can do nothing against human stupidity and make the situation worse.
Soccer can promote aggregation or pull out backward instincts, but, being so popular around the world, is just a mirror of society. The history of this sport is filled with matches that went way beyond the playful aspect. In 1998, at the World Cup in France, the destiny put USA and Iran against each other at the first turnament. Even though the assault at the American embassy in Teheran was almost 20 years before, the relationships between the two countries were still tense.
In 1986 Diego Maradona had a little personal revenge against England, which four years earlier won the war for the Malvinas/Falkland islands. The Argentinian talent scored the most famous goals of any World Cup, the amazing dribblings among the English players and the one with the hand.
Other examples are less popular and of course less funny. Albania-Serbia, in 2014, was suspended for a fight caused by a drone that carried a flag of the “great Albania”, which inclueded territories now property of Serbia. Everytime Romania and Hungary cross their paths, the risks are at a high level. Reasons: the Transilvania issue, back in World War I, the gipsies, expelled by the Magyar government and maybe the dispute on the “autorship” of pàlinka, the famous spirit.
These are just appetizers. The main dish was really dramatic and in this case it was a football match that triggered the conflict. 1969, World Cup qualifying of the Central America zone, the match is El Salvador vs Honduras. Obviously the relationships are already worn out by a delicate political situation. The Salvadorian government sent hundreds of thousands of peasants, by agreement with the neighbours. But the Honduran dictator, Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, with the excuse of an economic crisis, expelled them people, expropriating their fields. In this scenary takes place the match that will decide who will go to the Mexican World Cup in 1970.
The first round is in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The away team tries to limitate the stay at the minimun, but the night before the game is like hell for them: car horns and any kind of noise from the locals, to disturb the psychophysical rest of the rivals. And is not the worst. The Hondurian supporters slashes the tyres of the Salvadorian bus and throw stones at it. The match is played in an unreal atmosphere and the home team wins 1-0. The daughter of a Salvadorian general, Amelia Bolanos, kills herself for the disappointment, the suicide shocks the Nation and foments even more tension.
The return game is in El Salvador, and it’s easy to imagine a payback. A member of the staff of Honuras is stoned to death by his own compatriots while trying to calm them down. The army escorts the players to the stadium, where the Hondurian flag gets burned and two supporters are killed in a fight. Not enough for a suspension, the match goes on and El Salvador take advantage of the scorching climate, winning 3-0. Nowadays it would be qualified, for the goal difference, but back then it just was a winning each. So, to overstate the situation, a playoff is necessary to decide who will go to Mexico.
For security reasons, the rematch is in Mexico, but still the supporters of the two Nationals find a way to have a conflict, sublimation of a bigger, political discontent. El Salvador wins 3-2, the next day, June 27th, diplomatic relationships between the countries are off. On July 14th, only a couple weeks later, El Salvador invades Honduras and it’s war. In just four days the outcome is 6 thousand dead people, 15 thousand injured, 50 thousand refugees, until the Organization of American States requires ceasefire.
The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, in Honduras right in that period, calls the conflict “guerra del fùtbol”, the war of football, also known as the 100 Hour War. For the record, El Salvador will lose all the three matches of 1970 World Cup, incapable to score a single goal.