Latin America: The Football War

Black and white photograph of the Honduran national team at the World Cup in 1970.

STR / Contributor / Getty Images

During the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of Salvadorans migrated from their home country of El Salvador into neighboring Honduras. This was largely due to an oppressive government and the lure of cheap land. By 1969, approximately 350,000 Salvadorans were residing across the border. During the 1960s, their situation began to degrade as the government of General Oswaldo Lopez Arellano attempted to remain in power. In 1966, the large land owners in Honduras formed the National Federation of Farmers and Livestock-Farmers of Honduras with the goal of protecting their interests.

Pressuring the Arellano government, this group succeeded in launching a government propaganda campaign aimed at advancing their cause. This campaign had the secondary effect of boosting Honduran nationalism among the populace. Flush with national pride, Hondurans began attacking Salvadoran immigrants and inflicting beatings, torture, and, in some cases, murder. In early 1969, tensions increased further with the passage of a land reform act in Honduras. This legislation confiscated land from Salvadoran immigrants and redistributed it among native-born Hondurans.

Stripped of their land, immigrant Salvadorans were forced to return to El Salvador. As tensions grew on both sides of the border, El Salvador began claiming the land taken from Salvadoran immigrants as its own. With the media in both nations inflaming the situation, the two countries met in a series of qualifying matches for the 1970 FIFA World Cup that June. The first game was played on June 6 in Tegucigalpa and resulted in a 1-0 Honduran victory. This was followed on June 15 by a game in San Salvador which El Salvador won 3-0.

Both games were surrounded by riot conditions and open displays of extreme national pride. The actions of the fans at the matches ultimately gave name to the conflict that would occur in July. On June 26, the day before the deciding match was played in Mexico (won 3-2 by El Salvador), El Salvador announced that it was severing diplomatic relations with Honduras. The government justified this action by stating that Honduras had taken no action to punish those who had committed crimes against Salvadoran immigrants.

As a result, the border between the two countries was locked down and border skirmishes began on a regular basis. Anticipating that a conflict was likely, both governments had been actively increasing their militaries. Blocked by a US arms embargo from directly purchasing weapons, they sought alternative means of acquiring equipment. This included purchasing World War II vintage fighters, such as F4U Corsairs and P-51 Mustangs, from private owners. As a result, the Football War was the last conflict to feature piston-engine fighters dueling one another.

Early on the morning of July 14, the Salvadoran air force began striking targets in Honduras. This was in conjunction with a major ground offensive which centered on the main road between the two countries. Salvadoran troops also moved against several Honduran islands in the Golfo de Fonseca. Though meeting opposition from the smaller Honduran army, the Salvadoran troops advanced steadily and captured the departmental capital of Nueva Ocotepeque. In the skies, the Hondurans fair better as their pilots quickly destroyed much of the Salvadoran air force.

Striking across the border, Honduran aircraft hit Salvadoran oil facilities and depots disrupting the flow of supplies to the front. With their logistical network badly damaged, the Salvadoran offensive began to bog down and came to a halt. On July 15, the Organization of American States met in an emergency session and demanded that El Salvador withdraw from Honduras. The government in San Salvador refused unless promised that reparations would be made to those Salvadorans who were displaced and that those who remained in Honduras would not be harmed.

Working diligently, the OAS was able to arrange a ceasefire on July 18 which took effect two days later. Still unsatisfied, El Salvador refused to withdraw its troops. Only when threatened with sanctions did the government of President Fidel Sanchez Hernandez relent. Finally departing Honduran territory on August 2, 1969, El Salvador received a promise from the Arellano government that those immigrants living in Honduras would be protected.


During the conflict, approximately 250 Honduran soldiers were killed as well as around 2,000 civilians. Combined Salvadoran casualties numbered around 2,000. Though the Salvadoran military had acquitted itself well, the conflict was essentially a loss for both countries. As a result of the fighting, around 130,000 Salvadoran immigrants attempted to return home. Their arrival in an already overpopulated country worked to destabilize the Salvadoran economy. In addition, the conflict effectively ended the operations of the Central American Common Market for twenty-two years. While the ceasefire was put in place on July 20, a final peace treaty would not be signed until October 30, 1980.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Latin America: The Football War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). Latin America: The Football War. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Latin America: The Football War." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).