The girl, eighteen years old, stared at the television screen. Images flashed by, black and white, depicting a vivid scene. A battlefield was marked: a long stretch of open land, at either end of which sat something precious, something that needed protecting. The combatants eyed each other from a distance, violence etched in the lines of their faces. This was do or die, and there could only be one victor. In the periphery a whistle blew, shrill and foreboding, as the men charged.
Does this scene describe a battle or a football match? The girl watching couldn’t be sure. All she knew was that she wanted one side to win much more than the other. Her life depended on it. The year was 1969 and a war was about to begin.
Maybe football was always destined to start a war. There is, at a fundamental level, very little difference between the two; a territory (net) is attacked by an enemy (team) with the ultimate aim of claiming land (scoring a goal).
During the First World War, the inextricable nature of the two was not confined only to their conduct. When the British Expeditionary Force were filing into France for the first time, they carried ‘rifle and ball in hand.’ Another account, from the diary of a British general, posits that ‘no British troops ever travel without footballs or the energy to kick them.’ There are even accounts of soldiers dribbling footballs through no man’s land. Remove the guns from the equation and we can see where Orwell was coming from; ‘war minus the shooting’ indeed.
For a sport so inherently destructive, it may seem surprising that football tends to conjure glamorous connotations. The beautiful game, we call it, because nothing screams beautiful more than leg-breaking tackles and furious physicality. Admittedly, there is something beautiful about the game’s ability to inspire. The masses in 1914 would have gone to battle with far less enthusiasm had they not been allowed to take a football with them.
In 1969, however, football was anything but beautiful. As we know, it was so ugly that it started a war of its own. Historians have had no difficulty in naming this little episode; nearly fifty years ago the world witnessed its first, and last, Football War.
It all started in early June, in the house of that eighteen year old girl. Amelia Bolanos, sitting in front of her little television, was watching a football match. El Salvador were playing a first leg against Central American neighbours Honduras, in what was a pivotal fixture for both nations. Qualification to the 1970 World Cup was at stake.
The close proximity of the two nations, and the magnitude of the game was already enough to guarantee a tempestuous affair, but as Amelia watched on, every kick of the ball felt incalculably important. The explanation for this requires some context.
In the early twentieth century, thousands of Salvadorans began emigrating to Honduras in search of land. If you look at a map of the two, it’s easy to see why. Honduras dwarfs El Salvador, and in the twentieth century, had a smaller population too. By 1969, over 300,000 illegal Salvadoran immigrants resided in Honduras, but as the country found itself in economic and political turmoil, it began blaming these immigrants and turning them back to their homeland. El Salvador refused; they simply didn’t have the space.
With animosity growing by the day, the last thing either nation needed was a football match. It was the perfect opportunity to exacerbate the tension into a full-blown war.
All of this no doubt radiated in Amelia’s mind as she stared unblinking at the television screen. She wanted nothing more than for her team to return to El Salvador with the promise of the World Cup on their minds.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The game was headed to a dour 0-0, when a Honduras forward stepped up and converted in the dying moments.
Amelia couldn’t quite believe it. Why hadn’t the final whistle blown? It was too much for her impassioned mind to take. El Salvador had been humiliated. She had been humiliated. Averting her eyes from the screen, she went to her father’s room, grabbed his pistol, and shot herself in the heart.
Now the war began. Amelia became a national icon. Wherever one looked, her name was plastered across a newspaper or on a television screen. The national team carried her coffin at her funeral. Honduras looked fearfully across the border, thinking to themselves, what awaits us in the second leg?
The answer was devastation. The Honduras players were bombarded with dead rats, rotten eggs and pigs’ heads in their hotel. On the morning of the match, the streets were lined with thousands of Salvadorans holding up pictures of Amelia Bolanos. Tanks were required to transport the players to the stadium. With all this weighing on their minds, Honduras did well to lose only 3-0, and escape with their lives. Some fans were not so lucky; rioting broke out, injuring hundreds, and killing two. War was on the horizon.
But the football was not over. The margin of victory was deemed immaterial, and so after two legs, the score stood as 1-1. A final game, in neutral territory, would decide the victor. And so, 11 days later, the two teams lined up opposite each other for a final time. It was an enthralling game, and required extra time for El Salvador to prevail 3-2.
Drunk with delight, El Salvador severed ties with Honduras, and shortly thereafter, officially declared war. It lasted just 100 hours, but the damage was done: 3000 killed and thousands more wounded. And what had it all been for? El Salvador attended the World Cup in 1970, and promptly lost every game, scoring none in the process. It had all been for nothing.
We may not even realise it, but war inhabits the vocabulary we use today; to have a shot, or to attack an opposition’s goal. The appeal of football is rooted in a sort of primal delight in conquering an enemy. Derby matches today generate a similar sort of fervour; two opposing ideologies or cultures fighting for every ball with unfailing conviction.
This is precisely why soldiers loved it so much. In the First World War, From Ypres to the Somme, football acted as the greatest distraction for soldiers. They could sit alone in their trench, paralysed with fear, waiting for the dreaded call to leave their little sanctuary in the dirt, or they could round up their comrades and play a game called football. What better way to distract the mind than to partake in a sport every bit as passionate, physical and electrifying as a real battle?
But this is also why football creates so much tension. The stakes can feel every bit as real as a war. They certainly did in 1969. Every tackle was as hard-hitting as a bullet, every goal a victory of its own. Football ignited the flame that had, for some time, been waiting to erupt.
This is the singular complexity of football. It can soothe, it can infuriate, it can inspire, and it can erode. It can start a war, and it can end one. This paradox is true even in the idiosyncrasies of the game: the beauty in a delightfully weighted pass, or the ugliness in a two-footed lunge.
My day is often defined by whether my team has won. A split-second decision on the pitch can make me ecstatic or despondent in equal measure. The same was true for Amelia Bolanos, albeit to the extreme.
And who knows, maybe if Honduras had not scored the final kick of that game in 1969, young Amelia Bolanos would not have placed the pistol against her heart.
No other sport can lay claim to such momentous power.