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Salvadoran soccer: the only sign of war is that some fans go home early

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The war here between the government and the guerrillas fighting to topple it has set brother against brother, collapsed the economy, and left more than 20, 000 dead. But it's hard to see how it has hurt soccer.

Amid civil war, fans are cheering the country's best team since 1970.

El Salvador's Seleccion Nacional is one of six national teams currently in Honduras vying for the chance to represent the CONCACAF region (North and Central America, plus the Caribbean) at the World Cup competition in Spain in July.

''Soccer is in the veins of our people,'' says a broadcaster who announces the matches throughout the country.

The coach of the national team, Chepe Castro, agrees. ''Sometimes some of our players who live in the eastern part of the country, where the guerrillas are in control, will be stopped on the road. But the guerrillas only want to talk about soccer for a few minutes, and then let the players go on their way.''

Most of the national soccer team's financial backers have fled to Miami now, and those who remain can't afford to donate. The national team now has a government subsidy, which came to $50,000 this year.

''We have to play as much as possible, taking matches almost every week, in order to make more money.'' And the team, which has become one of the busiest in the world, now accepts more international matches, since many Salvadoran stadiums are in regions where fighting has made travel unsafe.

''This international play helps our team, which has many young players, to gain the experience of playing in front of fans that are not theirs,'' the coach says.

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