Ryszard Kapuscinski, 1932-2007 | A witness to (soccer) war that lay in wait

Published originally in Warsaw in 1978 (Czytelnik), Wojna futbolowa (The Soccer War) contains the title essay recounting Kapuscinski’s on-site reportage in Tegucigalpa and at the front during the 100-hour war with El Salvador in 1969.

Warsaw, Poland | Ryszard Kapuscinski, 74, who died on Jan 23, rarely wrote about football. True, the title of one of his best-known collections is The Soccer War (Granta, 1990), in which the title essay, translated from the Polish by William Brand, chronicles Kapuscinski’s insertion into the Honduran capital as war breaks out with El Salvador across the shared border.

In legend, the conflict, which lasted barely six days, became known as the soccer war due to the timing. In June 1969 the two nations played a best-of-three series to determine a place in the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico City. “Nobody in the world paid any attention,” Kapuscinski writes, as violence, taunting of rivals and diplomatic insults escalated.


Following the first game, a 1–0 victory for Honduras in the capital, Tegucigalpa, El Salvador fan Amelia Bolanios, 18, secured a kind of martyrdom by shooting herself in the chest after the Hondurans’ winning goal in the final minute. Her funeral was televised. After the second match, on 15 June, a 3–0 victory for the Salvadorans in San Salvador, the border between the two states was closed as the Honduran team sought evacuation in armored cars. Two Honduran fans died.

Reading the tea leaves in Mexico with the help of Mexican journalist Luis Suarez, Kapuscinski opts, as he would throughout his career for the Polish Press Agency, to see for himself. His jacket credit reads that he witnessed, in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, 27 coups and revolutions. The football matches—El Salvador would prevail in the series, 3–2, in extra time, at a 27 June decider in Mexico City—had political portent, while not bearing responsibility for the hostilities that ultimately began on 14 July.

In Latin America, [Suarez] said, the border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team. Players on the losing team are denounced in the press as traitors. When Brazil won the World Cup in Mexico, an exiled Brazilian colleague of mine was heartbroken: “The military right wing,” he said, “can be assured of at least five more years of peaceful rule.” On the way to the title, Brazil beat England. In an article with the headline “Jesus Defends Brazil,” the Rio de Janeiro paper Jornal dos Sportes explained the victory thus: “Whenever the ball flew towards our goal and a score seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out of the clouds and cleared the ball.” Drawings accompanied the article, illustrating the supernatural intervention.

Kapuscinski then narrates, in compressed fashion, his arrival in the Honduran capital and a Salvadoran bombing run that helps initiate the full conflict. He stumbles through deserted and blacked-out streets, creating panic in the populace by upsetting an empty garbage can, having sent a telex announcing the war’s first strike. He records a “bubble full of graffiti”—such as the Honduran message, WE SHALL AVENGE THREE-NIL—and the movement of Salvadorans within Honduras into stadium-based camps: “Throughout Latin America, stadiums play a double role: in peacetime they are sports venues; in war they turn into concentration camps.”

In the essay one finds self-aware commentary on strange media behaviors—“Charles Meadows of Radio Canada wanted the voice of a soldier cursing war amid a hellish racket of gunfire”—and Kapuscinski’s own encounter with the fog of war. Coming under fire from Salvadoran gunners, he dives into the bush:

When I opened my eyes I saw a piece of soil and ants crawling over it.

They were walking along their paths, one after another, in various directions. It wasn’t the time for observing ants, but the very sight of them marching along, the sight of another world, another reality, brought me back to consciousness. An idea came into my head: if I could control my fear enough to stop my ears for a moment and look only at these insects, I could begin to think with some sort of sense. I lay among the thick bushes plugging my ears with all my might, nose in the dirt and I watched the ants.

Australian cartoonist Geoff “Jeff” Hook editorializes for the Melbourne Sun at the time of the Apollo 11 moon shot. Hook comments, “Richard Nixon finds that the triumph of America’s latest space shot is menaced by ‘The Soccer War.’ ” (Copyright © Geoff Hook)

Commenting on the multidimensional, context-determined nature of reality may be one of Kapuscinski’s best contributions. He did not have the time for such when embedded and filing reports to Warsaw, but he helped develop this form of literary reportage in his magazine work and anthologies (see Guardian obituary, Jan 25). Kapuscinski writes how, relative to global events, the soccer war seems like an insignificant Third World border skirmish. On the third day of the war, Apollo 11 launches, with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins “opening new worlds, soaring into the infinite galaxies.”

Six thousand died in the confined but savage conflict, fueled not by football but tensions surrounding the eastward emigration of landless Salvadoran peasantry and the attempted restrictions from the Honduran oligarchy. Fifty thousand lost homes and fields in these six days in 1969, but, Kapuscinski concludes, “[B]oth governments are satisfied: for several days Honduras and El Salvador occupied the front pages of the world press and were the object of interest and concern. The only chance small countries from the Third World have of evoking a lively international interest is when they decide to shed blood.”

Life and football continue, calling to mind how, for Kapuscinski and for others who suffer through conflict, war remains a constant companion. Writing of his childhood—removed from Pinsk, now in Belarus, and transplanted to Warsaw in 1945—Kapuscinski reflects how all memories remain tinged by war like a “mental hump, a painful tumour” (“When There Is Talk of 1945,” Granta 88 [2004]).

One day, after school, I was playing soccer with friends in a local park. One of them plunged into some bushes in pursuit of the ball. There was a tremendous bang and we were thrown to the ground: my friend was killed by a landmine. War thus continued to lay in wait for us; it didn’t want to surrender. It hobbled along the streets supporting itself with wooden crutches, waving its empty shirtsleeves in the wind. It tortured at night those who had survived it, reminded them of itself in bad dreams.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. Brian says:

    Somehow I had missed the news of his passing until now. He was a great storyteller, an example of how journalism can be practiced.

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