Those of you who know me may remember that I'm an avid soccer fan. I've always loved the game and over the past couple of weeks I have watched almost every match of the women's World Cup competition being held in France. Today I happened to be off work and this afternoon I got to see the first semi-final. Naturally my loyalties were divided because, for those of you who don't follow the competition, the teams were England versus the United States.
I supported England for many years when I lived there but now I'm an American citizen I support the U.S., too, so this was a difficult game for me to call. The U.S. won the match by two goals to one, with England having a goal disallowed and missing a penalty. On balance I think it was the right result - the U.S. women were faster, their passing was sharper and they deserved the win.
Toward the end, as desperation set in, there were some heavy tackles, plenty of free kicks and some yellow cards were shown, but after the final whistle the teams shook hands and were friends again.
That's as it should be, but not all soccer games end like that. I am reminded of an infamous series of games that were played way back in 1969. The matches were internationals played between San Salvador and Honduras and the winner got the chance to go to the World Cup in Mexico.
These two countries lie side by side in Central America, with San Salvador on the Pacific coast and Honduras, which is five times bigger but with a smaller population, on the Atlantic. Because of the size difference, there was more land available in Honduras and 10% of Salvadorians had crossed the border to make a living in their neighboring country.
Much of the land in Honduras was owned by big corporations and the Hondurian peasants were land-poor themselves. They resented the people of San Salvador coming to settle in their country, taking their land and jobs and marrying their children. They protested and the Honduran government began deporting the Salvadorans. This caused a lot of resentment in both nations. On top of that the two countries were disputing the ownership of some islands off the Pacific coast, San Salvador was struggling to cope with the influx of people who had been deported, they were being told stories of violence and intimidation and feelings were running high. That was when the soccer matches were played.
There were three games in all, played to decide which country got to take part in the 1970 World Cup. The first two games ended in a win for each side, San Salvador winning at home by a single goal and Honduras scoring three in the return fixture. Both of these games were marred by increasingly violent clashes between the supporters. The third and final deciding game was played in a neutral stadium, in Mexico City. The Mexicans had more than 1,700 police on duty there but there was still some violence between the two sets of fans.
On the field, it was a very close match but it wasn't particularly ill-tempered. The players from both sides got on well with each other and the score was two goals each at the end of 90 minutes. As it was the deciding game the match couldn't end in a draw and so an additional 30 minutes was played. In the 11th minute of this extra time, Mauricio Rodriguez of San Salvador, ran forward and scored a goal to put his team ahead.
They held on till the end and won the game. San Salvador was going to the World Cup and Honduras was eliminated. The players shook hands and that seemed to be the end of it.
What they didn't know was on that day San Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with Honduras, citing "persecution stemming from a football match."
In the 17 days that followed, border skirmishes escalated, shots were fired and people died on both sides. Then, on July 14, 1969, San Salvador launched air strikes and ordered its army to invade Honduras.
These were two poor countries. The aircraft they used against each other were from the World War II era. Mustangs and Corsairs were dog-fighting each other while C47's were converted into bombers. On the ground, the Salvadorians pushed into Honduran territory led by armor such as old M3 Stuart tanks and supported by outdated artillery. They approached the Honduran capital but then the attack ground to a halt. Honduras, supported by supplies from neighboring Nicaragua, was hitting back, bombing oil facilities and airfields in San Salvador.
For four days the fighting raged but then, on July 18, the Organization of American States brokered a cease fire. San Salvador wanted compensation for its displaced citizens before its troop withdrew but the OAS threatened sanctions and by mid August the San Salvadorian army had retired to its own territory.
Officially the war only lasted four days but it made two poor nations poorer and cost the lives of nearly a thousand Salvadorians and more than twice that number of Honduran citizens, most of them civilians. Although they are now at peace there has been tension between the two nations ever since the Soccer War.
It's a great game, a game that's loved around the world and its fans are very loyal but it's not worth fighting over. We all have our loyalties and, as I said, mine were divided when England and the United States played each other but if they hadn't been, I'd never have resorted to violence.
By the time you read this the Women's World Cup will be over and hopefully the U.S. will have beaten the Netherlands and they'll be world champions again. When the final is played I'll be sitting on my couch cheering the U.S. women on but, whatever the outcome, I'm sure the players will be friends after the game and hopefully no one will be tempted to go to war over the result.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.