Football Wars

(Originally published on The Diplomacist)

Bill Shankly, the late manager of the Liverpool football club, said soon before his passing, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…I assure you it is much, much more important than that.” The legendary manager’s articulation of the profound significance of the sport of soccer may seem at first glance hyperbolic, a platitude by one who has devoted his entire life to sport. History, however, is saturated with anecdotes that give credence to his enthusiastic assertion that sports can be far more consequential than simple competitive ritual.

Long a means of settling conflicts in a choreographed, moderated fashion, sport is in a way the precursor to the legal governance dictating contemporary warfare. Native Americans famously resolved inter-tribal disputes with massive games of lacrosse—in Iroquois, Tewaarathon, or “Little Brother of War”—played over many miles. In the months and years preceding the United States’ entrance into the Great War, American educators promoted American football as a means to “prepare American youth for war,” an initiative that cemented the sport’s centrality in public school physical education and embedded it into the fabric of American culture. With the World Cup approaching this summer, here are a few of the richest examples of the nexus where sport meets political reality…


1. The Football War, 1969

From the early days of the 20th century to the 1960’s, El Salvador’s political instability, severe land ownership inequality, overpopulation, and the brutal repression of a peasant-led guerrilla revolt had driven hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans across the border into the neighboring Central American country of Honduras. There, the expatriate population could capitalize on cheap land or employment on large plantations, a trend that frightened Honduran landed elites and American companies such as the United Fruit Company, who owned ten percent of the nation’s arable land. In 1966, United Fruit facilitated the formation of the National Federation of Farmers to tighten a slipping grip on Honduras’s agricultural resources.

The Federation succeeded in pressuring the government of Lopez Arellano in alienating and scapegoating the Salvadoran community, encouraging attacks on immigrants that occasionally devolved into torture and murders. This wave of popular hatred eventually manifested itself legislatively in a highly unjust land reform act that served to strip Salvadoran immigrants of their rights to farm, their plots redistributed to native Hondurans. Hundreds of thousands of terrified and marginalized Salvadoran immigrants fled back over the border into El Salvador, while animosity on both sides simmered.

Amidst these highly volatile conditions, exacerbated by highly nationalistic media, El Salvador was scheduled to face Honduras during the second North American qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup, to be held the next year in 1970. Fighting, rioting, and displays of passionate nationalism marked the first match, held in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa. Honduras won 1-0 in overtime, perceived as an affront to Salvadoran national pride. 

Before the second match, which took place a week later in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, the Honduran team was hidden in a secret location outside of the city for their protection. The game was won by El Salvador 3-0, and was marked by even by even more vicious fighting and rioting, with rumors in the Honduran media that Salvadorans were keeping Honduran prisoners fueling further violence against Salvadorans still in Honduras.

With the teams tied for the qualifying seat, they met in Mexico City later in the month, and El Salvador was able to secure a 3-2 win in extra time. Soon after, the government severed diplomatic ties with Honduras on the grounds that it “had not taken any effective measures to punish…crimes which constitute genocide.”

Two weeks later, military action began with an aggressive Salvadoran airborne assault. The Salvadoran air force, despite the fact that they were using passenger planes with explosives strapped to their sides, successfully routed the far better equipped Honduran air force, who took days to regroup and launch a counter-strike into El Salvador. Terrified of a unilateral defeat, Honduras called upon the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene, and a cease-fire was arranged. It is widely believed that the vying intensities of nationalism displayed by both countries surrounding the series of soccer matches served to destabilize the facts on the ground enough to tip the countries into armed conflict.


 2. Most Politically Charged Match in History? 1974

At the height of the Cold War, Germans, divided into two states between a Communist, Soviet-aligned East and Capitalist, American-aligned West, met on the pitch for what is considered to be one of the most politically charged matches of soccer in history, in perhaps one of the most politically charged World Cups ever held. The USSR withdrew their players from the Cup after being scheduled to play Chile in the play-offs, as the newly installed Chilean regime of Augusto Pinochet had violently and undemocratically wrested power away from their ally, the democratically elected Marxist, Salvador Allende. Security at the Cup was to be the most intense in the tournament’s history due to fears of an attack by the hyper-active German Marxist group, The Red Army Faction, or a repeated catastrophe at the hands of Palestinian terrorists such as had occurred at the Munich Olympics just two years prior.

The two countries fared well in the first round, with West Germany defeating Chile and Australia, and East Germany drawing against Chile and defeating Australia, contributing to the sense that the upcoming face-off would be extremely contentious. The West German team was composed of athletic professionals, the East German team composed of workers, fueling the ideological backdrop of the match. West Germany, just a month before, had seen their beloved football club, Bayern Munich, thrive at the Euro Champions Cup, defeating Atlético Madrid in a blow-out at the championship. Many of the Bayern players now took the field on behalf of their country in the World Cup. Players of the Magdeburg football club, winners of the Euro Winners Cup a month before, now represented East Germany. The anticipation of the performance of these two highly talented teams was palpable, and both states’ media actively contributed to the nationalistic fervor.

Qualifying for the knockout stages, they finally met in front of 62,000 fans in Hamburg, West Germany on June 22, 1974, the first and last time the divided Germany states faced each other on the field. Operatives of the Stasi, the dreaded East German state security apparatus, traveled secretly to the match with orders to cheer on their team with a polite chant of “7-8-9-10-Great!” so as not to arouse suspicions of their presence. And because many East Germans, resentful of living under the invasive and repressive regime, secretly supported West Germany, the East German regime had to carefully select 1,500 genuine supporters. The approximately 60,000 West German fans dwarfed their presence.

For most of the first two halves, the teams were desperately deadlocked, however, at the 79th minute, Jürgen Sparwasser of East Germany managed to circumvent the West German defense to score a decisive goal, a shot known subsequently as “The Sparwasser Goal.” The monumental achievement deified Sparwasser on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Though rumors abounded that Sparwasser was rewarded for his performance with a car, a house, and a cash premium, the player denied these materialistic charges in later writings.

That West Germany went on to win the cup that year against the Netherlands meant little to the East Germans—they had managed to take a swing at their capitalist brethren. The next time the two teams would be scheduled to meet would be in 1992, but before they could take the field, the Berlin Wall crumbled and the two Germanys reunified. The teams have ever since played as one.


3. Grain for Goals, 1978

In 1978, Argentina was scheduled to host the World Cup, an opportunity with immense propaganda potential for the newly instated military junta, who was struggling to secure respect and legitimacy in the international community. The original budget of 70-100 million dollars surged to 700 million dollars, a price tag that the poor country could hardly afford. Roads connecting venues were repaired, color TV broadcasting established, and huge concrete walls erected around the nation’s slums. Various measures were also taken to hide the true state of the junta’s “Dirty War,” in which some 30,000 left-wing sympathizers and activists had been imprisoned, tortured, murdered, or simply “disappeared.” Operation El Barrido, for example, saw some two hundred politically suspect Argentinians disappeared per day in the weeks preceding the World Cup in an effort to prevent potential dissidents from speaking to foreign journalists about the abysmal human rights conditions in the country. General Videla, however, in his opening speech, promised that the tournament would be a “World Cup of Peace,” encouraging his embattled constituents to “unite behind the national flag.” 

After barely defeating Hungary 2-1 in the first round, Argentine striker Albert Luque was threatened by a representative of the junta that if the team wasn’t able to a win in their qualifying group, the players lives would be in danger. Luque knew the seriousness of this threat; Just that day, a brother of one of Luque’s close friends had disappeared, later to be found washed up on the banks a river with concrete affixed to his legs.

One highly contentious match between France and Argentina, in which Argentine referees denied French players certain penalties and failed to penalize Argentine players for various infractions, ended with a 1-0 win for the host team. Later, French footballers present at the match would allege that they witnessed referees winking at players after pro-Argentine calls, and that the Argentine players flagrantly ingested enough amphetamines before the game that the team had to “warm down for two hours after the match.” Such allegations of drug use could never be proven however, because FIFA officials conspicuously excused Argentine players from the otherwise obligatory drug tests. When they were tested, however, officials were surprised to see that one of the Argentine players was “pregnant,” his urine clearly stolen. Argentine players, who refute the idea that FIFA officials could be bribed or influenced so thoroughly in any direction, have passionately denied these charges.

For Argentina to advance past the second round to the semifinals, they would have to beat the Peruvian team, who was also representing a country experiencing the dark days of military dictatorship, by at least four goals.The Sunday Times, more than ten years after the match, revealed that in return for an easy win, Argentina agreed to ship a stock of arms as well as 35,000 tons of free grain to the economically crippled Peruvian dictatorship. Argentina easily beat Peru 6-0, raising eyebrows internationally, as the match was by no means so predictable. 

The final match against the Netherlands was no less controversial. Argentine authorities arranged for the Dutch team to be driven the wrong way to the stadium, taking a suspicious twenty-minute stop for repairs in a small village, where expectant fans shook the bus chanting “Ar-gen-ti-na! Ar-gen-ti-na!” When they finally arrived at Estadio Monumental, they were met by 70,000 wild fans, kept from tearing the team apart by lines of Argentina’s terrifying military police. The original referee, the respected Abraham Klein, was vetoed by Argentina, and the Italian Serio Gonella was charged with the fair adjudication of the match. His performance, however, was anything but fair, and Holland lost in extra-time.

Despite the dreams of General Videla’s junta that a World Cup title would rejuvenate Argentina’s international image, their controversial mismanagement of matches, intimidation of other teams as well as FIFA itself, and clear bribery of the Peruvian team achieved just the opposite. Because of the attention given to the Cup, many observers got a glimpse into the corruption of the Latin American political landscape, and began demanding answers regarding the systematic atrocities committed by Argentina’s government as well as military regimes across the continent.

Graphic by author

Graphic by author