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How football helped to heal Honduras

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Paul Fletcher | 07:00 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

I often see a football match described as a battle or a fight for survival but in 1969 a tie between Honduras and El Salvador proved to be the catalyst that turned simmering border tension and immigration issues into all-out war.

The two teams met in a play-off that had more at stake than simply a place at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and each side was subjected to abuse, xenophobia and hatred when playing in the other country.

After losing 3-0 in El Salvador, Honduras coach Mario Griffin wryly observed: "We're awfully lucky that we lost."

El Salvador progressed to the World Cup finals but neither side prospered from the Soccer War, as it has become known, which broke out less than three weeks after Honduras were eliminated.

The war lasted 100 hours and left an estimated 6,000 dead and 12,000 wounded.

The legendary Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski covered the war and wrote afterwards: "In Latin America, the border between soccer and politics is vague.

"There is a long list of governments that have been overthrown after the defeat of the national team."

Last year Honduras's attempt to qualify for the World Cup finals took place amid a backdrop of political turmoil.

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya celebrated Honduras's qualification Ousted president Zelaya celebrated Honduras's qualification

President Manuel Zelaya was forced into exile in July amid a power struggle over his plans for constitutional change. Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as interim leader, although Zelaya returned to Honduras in September and sought sanctuary in the Brazilian embassy as he tried to return to power.

It was a delicate situation that could easily have become far worse when Honduras, who are represented in the Premier League by Tottenham's Wilson Palacios and Wigan duo Hendry Thomas and Maynor Figueroa, travelled to El Salvador for their final qualifier on 14 October.

A Honduras victory combined with the United States avoiding defeat against Costa Rica would ensure their place at the finals in South Africa 2010.

Honduran football association president Rafael Callejas was inside the Estadio Cuscatlan in San Salvador and saw veteran striker Carlos Pavon put his side in front just after the hour but news of the score between the US and Costa Rica was scarce. The game was not broadcast inside the stadium and the reception on both of Callejas's mobile phones was terrible.

He eventually found out that Costa Rica had raced into an early 2-0 lead and later discovered that Michael Bradley had pulled a goal back for the US after 71 minutes.

"I was happy we were winning but sad because I knew that Costa Rica were still in front," Callejas told me. "There was a lot of speculation and it was not until a minute after the final whistle that all the Hondurans inside the ground found out the US had scored a late equaliser, meaning that we had qualified."

It was the first time since 1982 they had made it to a World Cup finals.

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Perhaps more significantly, in a reversal of the events of 1969 it seems that 40 years on their footballing triumph played its role in preventing an outbreak of violence.

"If we had not qualified for the World Cup the differences in Honduras would have become enhanced and probably we would have had high levels of violence," added Callejas.

"People were tranquilised by the game, it gave them hope and happiness."

Callejas should have a better understanding than most of the relationship between politics and football in Honduras, having been president of the nation from 1990 to 1994.

He believes Honduras to be a country that lives and breathes football and noted: "Everybody is not only a fan but they are also a reporter, director and coach."

And the 66-year-old describes the team's qualification for South Africa as a balm that brought Honduras together at a time when it was badly fracturing.

"You cannot imagine how happy people were - they forgot everything," he said. "There were groups that wanted us to lose until we won and then they were also happy."

Photographs showed the ousted Zelaya celebrating inside the Brazilian embassy, while Callejas claimed the populace was so keen to celebrate with their heroes that the team feared for their safety on their return from El Salvador.

"We could not organise anything," stated Callejas. "We could not even get on a bus because every time we tried people just climbed on it and ran in front of it.

"There was no way the police or army could protect the players. In the end we parked in front of the presidential palace - not necessarily to see the president but to run away from all that was happening and protect the players."

Micheletti came out to greet the triumphant squad and Callejas, doubtless an old hand at such matters, fully admits that the maximum possible political gain was made of the situation.

An election held in Honduras in November was won by Pofirio Lobo, a member of the opposition to Zelaya's Liberal Party. The legitimacy of it was questioned by many observers but Lobo was sworn in as president in January and Zelaya left for exile in the Dominican Republic.

The political crisis in Honduras seems to be over and Callejas is now focused on the World Cup, when his team will try to qualify from a group that also comprises Spain, Chile and Switzerland.

At the end of his report on the Soccer War, Kapuscinski concluded: "The only chance small countries from the Third World have of evoking a lively international interest is when they shed blood. This is a sad truth but it is so."

But whatever happens in South Africa, the Honduras team has already shown the power that football has to unite people.

Watch the BBC's World Cup guide to Honduras

You can follow me throughout the season at


  • Comment number 1.

    It's quite startling to put this kind of stuff into perspective. We often, in England, think of ourselves as soccer mad, as I am sure a lot of nations do such as Germany and Italy. However, the Latin and South Americans take it to a whole new level. Football really is the be all and end all for many and, as you have highlighted, can have wide reaching political consequences.

  • Comment number 2.

    #1 - pretty much totally agree. It's very sad that a game has such vast implications, which often result in widespread violence and, ultimately, loss of life. It clearly means so much more to those who have little else in their lives; this is the one chance where everyone can just forget about everyday hardship, and share a common dream. I hope they do well at the World Cup, personally; I've got them in the Suremen sweepstake! :-S

  • Comment number 3.

    yep, most case not a good thing

  • Comment number 4.

    Really puts football it to perspective when lives are lost over the result of a match. The only thing now would be what would happen in Honduras if the team don't do well at the World Cup. Would disturbances in the country happen again if they didn't manage to get a win? - English Footballers Abroad

  • Comment number 5.

    Paul what do you think of their chances?

    I feel that Honduras have a good base of players such as Suazo, Palacios, and the Wigan contingent of Figueroa and Thomas. They should put it some respectable performances hopefully.

  • Comment number 6.

    Yeah the good Ol latinos will spill blood for a goal eh? Shocking! I would have expected some more background research information before that sort of positive racism is blogged...If you are going to blog about politics blog about it, and don't try to evade or paint over the uncomfortable issues.

  • Comment number 7.

    Here is a more detailed account and perhaps a fairer explanation.

  • Comment number 8.

    I was at the qualifying match in Honduras against the United States. We were expecting to see turmoil and political division, but what we experienced was a very united country. It wasn't that the people were supporting the imposed government, but they were upset with Zelaya for trying to bypass their constitution and turn them into a banana republic.

    In the end, the Hondurans were among the friendliest and most hospitable fans of any of our CONCACAF opposition. At the end of the match, Honduras WC dream all but abandoned, the small cadre of 30 US fans huddled together prepared to be battered by missiles. Instead, thousands of Hondurans turned around and applauded us. Truly amazing.

  • Comment number 9.

    It is known as The Football War but in the region it is known as The Six Day war. It really is incredibly simplistic to say the war was about football and a little patronising.

  • Comment number 10.

    Paul, stick to trivial stories about ian holloway or some groundsman in the lower leagues. You're out of your depth here.

    The title is obviously ridiculous only worsened by the ignorant comment, 'the political crisis in Honduras seems to be over'.

    A democratically elected leader was ousted in a coup, Paul. This isn't a quirky blog about some mascot, it is required to be treated with more depth and seriousness than you have shown yourself capable of.

    When mentioning that the following election was questioned by many observers, maybe it should also be included that Zelaya, the ousted president was banned from such an election and that all but colombia (who recieve more US military aid than the rest of South America combined) refused to recognise the government.

    Football has not healed Honduras. In the same way, Brazil and Argentina's victories in '70 and 78' respectively, did not heal their countries. It could be argued quite the opposite that their sporting success aided the military juntas.

  • Comment number 11.

    Maybe if El Salvador had qualified then Paul would be telling us how football resolved differences in opinion between Diesicoho and the Mara Salvatrucha?

    Readers of this blog will do better to read some of the comments rather than the article itself.

  • Comment number 12.

    the comments is very interesting!

  • Comment number 13.

    Hello - many thanks for the comments, critical or otherwise.

    collie21 (post 6) - I'm sorry that you have interpreted it that way. I have spent a reasonable amount of time in both central and south America and have far too much respect for the people out there to make patronising comments that would do little but demean them.

    I should stress that in the article I do explain that the Soccer Way, or, as someone has pointed out in terms of its alternative name, the Six Day War, was about simmering issues and that the games of football brought those to a head. They were not the cause in the themselves.

    It was also my intention to avoid making a judgement about the rights and wrongs of the events of last year with regard to the political situation. In all honesty I don't feel qualified to do so.

    You might then suggest that I should therefore avoid writing the above article but I wanted to tell the story of how the qualification for the World Cup impacted on the country at such a sensitive time.

    I am more than happy for you to agree or argue against the interpretation of events offered by Rafael Callejas - this is partly the point of a piece that offers its readers the chance to respond.

    Certainly, if you are Honduran I would be very interested to hear about what you thought of the effect of qualification upon the mood of the nation.

    yousef (post5) - difficult to say. I think they would do well to qualify from their group, especially given that Spain are all but certain to claim top spot.

    Wayne-o - thanks for your perspective as a US fan, very interesting.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.


    Thank you for taking the time to write about my country. Trying to explain Latin American politics and our passion for football is not easy and I think you've done a great job.

    Don't worry about the sneer comments regarding what happened in Honduras last year; anyone who wants to uphold democracy should take interest in what is happening in Venezuela and Nicaragua instead of talking about Honduras.

    The political crisis, as such is over, we have now restored diplomatic ties with 50 countries of the 65 that we had ties with before the events in June last year. The majority of the countries that refuse to recognise the new government are Hugo Chavez's allies (no big loss there for us).

    What you are writing about is actually the theme of a documentary that is being produced in my country. The team's qualification has come when, as a country, we needed it most. Football is our passion and it brings us together. I wouldn't go as far as saying things would have been worse had the team not qualified (and they will definitely not deteriorate if we don't do well), but I absolutely agree it started the healing process, there is still a long way to go.
    The movie is called A Common Goal

    As to the nasty comments on 'Latinos' I will just say: look around you, Latin Americans are everywhere in London...we're bankers, bar tenders, insurers, brokers, chefs, wealth managers, lawyers, waiters, artists, football players, etc. Think of this before generalising, you might offend your boss.

  • Comment number 16.

    I do like this article, however the reality of the matter was that the victory of the Honduran team was one of the final blows to Zelaya´s intentions on reforming the constitution for his own interests. I feel I can say that since I´m Honduran...I beared witness to the whole crisis. Zelaya and his supporters promoted the rejection of the Honduran National Team, they accused them of being "golpistas" or part of those responsible for the presidential ouster (the only one resposible for his ouster was Zelaya himself...and his godfather Chavez) There was graffitti all around the city insulting the team, etc...all with the interest of forcing more discord between the Honduran people and then exploiting it. When the team made it to the Cup, it served as evidence that Hondurans (all Hondurans) were Hondurans first and we wanted to achieve and progress, nobody wanted to sink into some sort of left winged blackhole that would bring riches and power only to Zelaya. We all rejoiced and Zelaya tried to correct his rhetoric against the team, but it as too late...everybody saw that he did not love his country...he did not love its people...he loved only himself. Needless to say, this sport brings hope to all and it always should (win or lose) since it is an embodiment of teamwork, cooperation, discipline,effort, endurance and love for nation...something that citizens of all nations should put forth for their own country.

  • Comment number 17.

  • Comment number 18.

    The unique democratically president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was present and representing Honduras at the bicentenary celebrations held in buenos aires on tuesday

    as for 'the majority of the countries that refuse to recognise the new government are Hugo Chavez's allies'...or in other words, almost all of Latin America refuses to recognise the 'government' currently occupying tegucigalpa.

    what's more, as clau writes from london, 'who wants to uphold democracy should take interest in what is happening in Venezuela and Nicaragua instead of talking about Honduras.' i couldn't have put it better myself! :) anyone who wants to take an interest in democracy should look at venezuela and nicaragua, instead of honduras...haha perfect, clau-thanks for that one. someone may also wish to look at uruguay, brazil, paraguay and bolivia.

    sadly, for the upper classes in latin america, democracy is strenghthening and the majority are advancing...hence many of them fleeing to work in miami, new york, madrid and london

    greetings from latin america

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm a British ex-pat living in El Salvador and I attended the game at Estadio Cuscatlan. There are rights and wrongs in the article but the one thing that I feel I should mention was that, on the whole, the Honduran victory was well received by the Salvadorans outside the ground after the game.

    As my friends and I made our way to our cars after the game, there was disappointment from the Salvadoran fans but I witnessed numerous occasions where Salvadorans wished their Honduran counterparts "buena suerte" and shook hands.

    To me *this* was the real story that was overlooked by so many when the game was played - whatever the upheaval in Honduras at the time, the wounds of past violence in these two countries has now been overcome to the extent that opposing nationalities could get along and have a beer after the game. Long may this continue...

  • Comment number 20.

    I have lived in Honduras all my life and through the events of June 2008. Paul, the bit you wrote was a perfect portrayal of what the whole event meant for us. Of course, there would be a sense of exaggeration to claim that the qualification fixed the country, but there is no one here who could deny that it wasn't an integral part of the process. I attended every home game and those in the United States during the qualification process, and there is little else in the country that creates such a common ground for all the population; some of our greatest claims to international pride are the performances of players like David Suazo, Rambo de Leon, Palacios and Figueroa abrpad, and this generation of players who managed to get us to the World Cup will be a part of our history, as is the team that got there in 1982 (and Jonathan Bornstein) regardless of how well we do on the big stage.

    As for the comments by "marko" I can only refrain myself to the extent of deeming you oblivious of what occurred in Honduras and that the opinion stated is hindered by the fact that you weren't here. This is a fact that is completely understandable. The way the media covered the events was personally disgusting and has made me lose a certain amount of faith in the reliability of certain news outlets, CNN and NBC News among others.

    "Clau" has got it on the mark really. And for a clarification, if it is needed, I feel that there "marko" misunderstood a statement in the former's post. When "clau" stated that those who have interest in democracy should look to Venezuela and Nicaragua instead of Honduras, he was stating that Venezuela and Nicaragua's democracy is far from perfectly democratic as over the past decade it has started to practice increasingly socialist policies, similar to what you see in Cuba, and those who would have interest in establishing democracy would be wise to view those countries as they are as far from a democracy as you can get in South America.

  • Comment number 21.

    Ivan, thanks for clarifying for me.

    Paul, don't let this become a discussion on what happened in Honduras, the subject has been discussed to boredom for almost a year. Bottom line is we did what Venezuelans should have done years ago and we would do it all over again (albeit with a better PR strategy) in a blink.

    Hondurans are thrilled to be in the World Cup, we live this game with passion and we can't wait to see our boys live our dream after a 28-year wait.

    PS I'm a girl :)

  • Comment number 22.

    @ f45y5y43

    England is not the craziest about football. Turkey would better fit that description.

    But as this article has pointed out it is on another level in South America.

  • Comment number 23.

    I was there, doing a bit of wild travelling, and believe me there was some real HATRED ... and I mean total abhorence...they would really have killled each other just for idea of having of having relatives born in the other country.... watched some local football in these two Central American republic, and while the talant was something to be desired, the passion for the game was truely amazing...seen animals strolling across the pitch while play in progress and, a few machetes come out when too much excitement is aroused...hence this report is really on the level!

  • Comment number 24.

    Go Honduras! Can't see them doing much, but if its helping the Hondurans then I guess it's win-win?!

  • Comment number 25.

    @ El-Turco

    ...but is it on another level in Lam? I dont think so. This article certainly didnt show that. Half my family is from central america and yes when it comes to playing the game they are as obsessive as anyone... but when it comes to supporting a team there isn't the culture that there is in england. As i said in my previous post i find supporting a football team a rather pathetic way of life, and the english have got it down.

  • Comment number 26.

    I think the point we can see here, is that if you begin to talk politics, you need to do a lot of work to portray correctly either both or even one side. Yes I meant to scold because clearly that hasn't been done. Just look at the comments on both sides.
    I don't see much point in continuing the political discussion as this is essentiallly a football blog. But the haves, have computers and access to the internet and the have nots have nothing. Whose voice are we likely to hear the most in a political discussion?

  • Comment number 27.

    Was it Wilson Palacios who's brother was kidnapped last year? Does anyone know what happened to him?

  • Comment number 28.

    Hi Paul,

    I work for Sony's digital agency and was looking to send you an email but can't find an address.

    Give me a shout -


  • Comment number 29.

    Rovers return (post 27). I'm afraid that his brother was killed.

    Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the debate - some very forthright opinions.

    I'm not quite sure it is possible to calculate which country is into football the most, the most fanatical about the game, but there are certainly plenty that could lay claim.

  • Comment number 30.

    It is a fallacy to equate a movement (politically and economically) towards Socialism as being an automatic indicator of a more authoritarian regime. This is completely false. Socialism is completely compatible with Democracy; indeed, the philosophy of democratic socialism tries to bring these two concepts together to deliver a system of social and economic governance that is for everyone, not just the elite few. So I totally reject the assertion that a socialist government will inevitably move towards authoritarianism. If they do become autocratic, it is due to the personalities of the politicians rather than any problems in the actual theory of socialism.
    In fact, a socialist system should in fact encourage the formation and maintenance of democratically elected institutions that are there for the benefits of the majority. For example, cooperative businesses, unions,etc, all institutions that are favoured by democratic socialists, and all are run in a way that everyone has a say, and that the weight of their vote is not related to their wealth. These institutions are truly the best of democracy. Contrast this with some of the thoroughly undemocratic practises of turbo-charged financial capitalism, where bankers in the US bullied Congress to pass the bailout, even though a significant proportion of the population found it abhorrent that private failures were being compensated for by public funds. Now answer me this, would anyone claim that such practises are democratic? I think I know the answer.
    So please, STOP linking socialism with authoritarian dictatorship. Fox News may peddle that particular nonsense, but they have a vested interest in furthering this viewpoint. There is no reason for socialism to resemble the last days of the USSR. In fact, if you look at a look of socialist nations like Venezuela and Cuba, there are a lot of positive aspects of these countries that a lot of people in capitalist countries are envious of, such as the health care system of Cuba, and the efficient and equitable distribution of the economic benefits accrued from Venezuela's crude oil reserves.

  • Comment number 31.

    Some people seem to be expressing the idea that everything is now ok in Honduras. To see the other side read the following report:

    I've pasted the first two paragraphs here:

    Washington, D.C., March 8, 2010—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns and laments the murders last month of three persons in Honduras who were active in the resistance to the coup d’état or related to activists. It also deplores the kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, acts of torture, sexual violations, and illegal raids to which other members of the resistance have been victims. The IACHR also expresses its deep concern over information it has received indicating that sons and daughters of activists are being threatened and harassed, and that in two cases they have been killed.

    According to the information received, on February 3, 2010, 29-year-old Vanessa Zepeda Alonzo, who was active in the Resistance Front and was affiliated with the Social Security Employees Union, was found dead in Tegucigalpa. According to eyewitnesses, her body was thrown out of a car. Likewise, on February 15, 2010, Julio Funez Benitez, an active member of the resistance who belonged to the SANAA Workers Union, was holding a conversation on the sidewalk outside his residence in the Colonia Brisas neighborhood of Olancho when he was killed with two shots fired by unknown gunmen traveling on a motorcycle. Finally, on February 24, 2010, Claudia Maritza Brizuela, 36 years old, was killed in her home. She was the daughter of union and community leader Pedro Brizuela, who participates actively in the resistance. Two unknown individuals came to her door, and when she opened it, Claudia Brisuelas was shot and killed in front of her children, ages 2 and 8.

  • Comment number 32.

  • Comment number 33.

    I'm English and have lived almost 40 years in Honduras - enough to know that FOOTBALL is the national opiate - it's their only sport and it really dominates the newspaper content, as well as the local weekend television. Commercial interests, politicians and even artists all exploit and contribute to this situation. The national following has grown to such an extent that on the recent world cup qualifier match days, at least half the local population (women, children and men) were decked out on the Honduran team's colours.

    However it appears that this unifying and nationalistic phenomenon is certainly not limited to Honduras. Recently I spent an evening with my Honduran daughter and two of her friends, both young professional women, one from Nigeria and the other from Cameroon. The Nigerian woman astounded me with her facts and figures about the Nigerian soccer team from 1994 onwards - not at all the expected topic of conversation of a graduate student of civil engineering! But no mention was made whether the players were muslim or Christian or from the North or South. The woman economics research coordinator from Cameroon was even more informative about Eto'o's goal scoring abilities and those of all other players in her national team, be they Bantu, highlanders or from wherever.

    She finished her "presentation" with a 1986 recording from a Cameroon group called Zangalewa. Apparently Shakira has borrowed it for the 2010 World Cup! I was reminded of the song that English football fans often sing - "Rule Britannia!" Strangely enough, that song was written to commemorate events in the "War of Jenkin's Ear", when the outraged British nation went to war over the unjustified hacking off by Spanish authorities of a suspected pirate's ear. And that war lasted more than eight years, a lot longer than a three week soccer war!

  • Comment number 34.

    The great Bill Shankley once said "Football is not just a matter of life or death, it's much more important than that".
    Nuff said.

  • Comment number 35.

    this is everything a good blog should be - a catalyst to commentary. some really interesting first-hand accounts here. so thanks, paul, ignore the sneers, moanings a way of life for some people.

    any chance of a blog about port vale at some point? the football culture in burslem is far more passionate than any south american country. im sure robbie will give you an interview.

  • Comment number 36.

    "Rovers return (post 27). I'm afraid that his brother was killed."

    For everything that is good about sport, there seems to be some who use it to further their own warped causes. It is a real shame to hear that, although I did imagine that would be the answer.

  • Comment number 37.

    Good article mixing sport and politics, even though it is of course important to stress that Zelaya had been democratically elected and was effectively overthrown in a coup.

    Anyone interested in more of the background to the Honduran team's qualification and the political background should check this out:

  • Comment number 38.

    Hey Paul!
    I have also spent time in South America and have seen the amazing unity it brings to the people there. I met people who have (in terms of money anmd possesions) literally nothing, yet when their country plays football its a release from all of lifes hardships. Complete strangers stahnd together almost anywhere you can imagone and cheer at the top of their lungs for their country to score a goal. So i can easily imagine the amazing effects that qualifying for the WC has done for Honduras.

    Look at England. Ok we dont have the political turmoil thats happening in some countries in Central America, but we are none the less a bit of a broken nation at the moment with little community and culture. Could you imagine what England winning the WC would do this country and how happy and united people would be?

    Football means so much to so many.

  • Comment number 39.

    I will definntely be supporting Honduras as my second team in the world cup. Just one thing, ammending the consitution so that someone can stand as long as people vote for them is arguably more democratic than enforced fixed terms. It certainly does not constitute a dicatorship. It is what we have in the UK.

  • Comment number 40.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 41.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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