San Salvador, El Salvador
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.
Publicity resulting from the strife in the country has increased the team's fan appeal when it visits other countries as well.
''Everybody knows who El Salvador is now,'' says a reporter for El Diario de Hoy, the nation's largest newspaper.
It is Sunday in San Salvador. The national team plays Haiti in Cuscatlan Stadium at 4 p.m. Seats in the shade, sombras, cost $10, and sols, in the sun, cost about $1.60. Since it's a cloudy day, the sols will be as comfortable as the sombras.
The white-jerseyed Salvadorans are short, stocky, and defter with the ball than the red-shirted Haitians. Many are well over six feet tall and quite thin, bringing Caribbean herons to mind. The Salvadoran style is to pass, pass, pass, attempting to apply pressure on their opponent's defense, waiting for a mistake.
On this day, the Haitians seem prone to oblige with mistakes, and Salvador scores from close range in the game's 35th minute. Moments later, a clever pass, off a penalty kick, results in an almost embarrassingly easy goal and the lead is 2-0.
The raucous, partisan crowd is knowledgeable and not insulting to the Haitians.
With 10 minutes still to play, fans begin to leave the stadium, apparently to avoid the post-match parking-lot morass.
''No,'' explains an onlooker, ''they live far away in the countryside and want to get home before the curfew.''
It is the only reminder that this is a nation torn by a war with itself. The match ends, a 4-0 triumph for El Salvador.