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.

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