Often people who do not understand the passion for football question why so many people care about 22 players running around after a ball for 90 minutes. Even some passionate fans feel that it is simply a game, and nothing more important than that.
However, try telling that to football fans in Honduras. Football has caused both tragedy and healing in the Central American country over the past 40 years. Both war and peace; both preceding and preventing violence; football is more than just a game there.
In 1969, the so-called "Soccer War" broke out between Honduras and El Salvador. Whilst the war was not solely a result of the football, the match between the two nations was widely seen as the catalyst for the outbreak of violence.
Honduras travelled to El Salvador in a playoff for a place in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but went down to a 3-0 defeat. A bad-tempered game, where the Hondurans were subjected to abuse, xenophobia, and outright hatred, just as the Salvadorans had been in the reverse fixture back in Honduras. Indeed, the Honduran coach, Mario Griffin, commented that “we are awfully lucky that we lost.”
Honduran fans were attacked in San Salvador, both before and after the match, and the Honduran flag and national anthem were insulted, leading to extremely strained relations between the two sets of fans and populations. Salvadorans residents in Honduras were killed or attacked, including several vice consuls, and thousands began fleeing the country. Less than a month after the match, the Salvadoran army and air force launched a full-scale attack on Honduras. The war lasted only four days until a cease-fire agreement was reached, but a final peace settlement would not come for over a decade.
Over 3,000 people were dead—the majority being Honduran civilians—whilst thousands more were left homeless. The economic situation in Honduras was affected by the expulsion of almost 100,000 Salvadorans.
Whilst there were far more complex reasons behind the war, hinging mainly around economic disparities between the countries, the events surrounding the football match are often viewed as the catalyst for the outbreak of violence. It gives a whole new importance to football beyond merely a game for 22 people.
However, football can also act as a major healer. Fast-forward to October 2009, and once again, the Honduran national side travelled to El Salvador in the final qualifying match for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. They knew that they had to win, and needed the USA to beat Costa Rica, to ensure qualification. However, the game took place amid a situation of political turmoil in Honduras. Democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya, had been forced into exile last July following a power struggle concerning his plans for constitutional change.
The scenes inside the stadium in San Salvador were confused for the Hondurans. They wrapped up a comfortable 1-0 victory after top scorer Carlos Pavon had headed the ball home just after the hour mark. However, Costa Rica had gone 2-0 up against the USA. When the final whistle had blown in San Salvador, the Americans had pulled one goal back, but the Hondurans thought they had missed out. However, a 95th-minute equaliser confirmed Honduras’ place in South Africa.
Honduran FA President and former Honduran President, Rafael Callejas, said that “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. People were tranquilised by the game; it gave them hope and happiness.” Now, the political crisis in the country seems to have resolved itself and is nearly over. Whether this would have happened without the success of the national side is a different question.
It is not the only example of football, and sport in general, having far more extensive effects that people would expect. The qualification of the Cote d’Ivoire in 2006 helped to distract attention from the civil war raging in the country. The mix of different ethnic and religious groups in the national team helped the country to bond, and a cease-fire was declared and observed during the tournament. As one Ivorian said, “Everyone is thinking about soccer and the World Cup, and we have forgotten about the war. Thanks to soccer, the country is going to reconcile its differences.”
Iran’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup led to massive celebrations, alcohol-fuelled parties, and women throwing off their veils. Some thought that the qualification might have become a spark to overthrew the government. It was not to be, but the impact that football can have on the population of a country is clear.
Other sports can have a similar effect as well. The Filipino boxer, Manny Pacquiao, is a true hero back in the Philippines. Virtually the entire country stops during his fights, and crime rates fall to zero during the period of the bout.
Football has often been described as an international language. The influence of football in Honduras over the years has shown that anyone who views football solely as a game severely underestimates the impact that the sport can have on emotions in a country, and even the political future of the nation.