In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador went to war while their football teams faced off in a World Cup qualifier.
The qualifying rounds for the 1970 FIFA World Cup were fraught for a few reasons. North Korea was disqualified after they refused to play against Israel. Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru faced off against each other for one place in the finals, and Argentina paid the referee of one of the Bolivia-Peru matches to throw the match in Bolivia’s favour. (He did. Bolivia won that match but Peru won all the others and thus took the finals spot. Argentina failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time – so I suppose there was some karma there.) But the biggest conflict was between two Central American nations: they went to war.
Now, it’s a bit misleading to say that Honduras and El Salvador went to war over a football match. The two countries had some long-standing problems with each other. Thousands of Salvadorans had emigrated to Honduras in the decades prior. In the 1960s the government of Honduras began “reclaiming” land from the Salvadoran migrants and expelling them from the country. So by the time the 1969 qualifiers came around, tensions were at crisis point.
The first match was in El Salvador, and El Salvador won 1-0. The second match was in Honduras, and Honduras won 3-0. Each match, the fans faced off and fought, and each match, the fighting escalated. The third and final match, the tie-breaker, was held in Mexico City. El Salvador won in extra time, 3-2, and that same day cut off diplomatic ties with Honduras – citing the escalating violence against Salvadoran migrants in Honduras. Less than three weeks later, the two countries were at war.
El Salvador planes bombed Honduras. Then the army crossed the border. Honduran planes bombed El Salvador. The two sides fought for just four days before a cease-fire was called – earning this conflict its other name, the Hundred Hour War. The two countries eventually settled their differences, and in the finals next year El Salvador lost all three of its World Cup matches.