It’s one of the most famous results in the history of football: on 15 June 1982, Hungary hammered El Salvador 10-1, setting a World Cup record that will probably last forever. The embarrassment of such a thumping was obvious: El Salvador looked like a squad of amateurs who couldn’t play football.

However, beneath the 10-1 scoreline lies a remarkable story of a bunch of footballers who made the trip to Spain eager to compete in a worst-case scenario, despite a disgraceful lack of organisation and continuous setbacks that would have made even the best team panic. For 10 unforgettable days, these anti-heroes who had learned to fight against prejudice had the unique chance of being in the spotlight of the football world. And in a way, they were (for all the wrong reasons, of course).

Their qualification was miraculous. The country was gripped by civil war. Training during the conflict wasn’t easy, as some of the players recalled. “If some of us arrived late, it was because we had to assist wounded people abandoned alongside the road,” said the defender Francisco Jovel. Rumours suggest that some players favoured the military government and others sympathised with the guerrillas, but politics were not a matter for discussion in the dressing-room. “All we know is that when we played the qualifiers, we made the killings from both factions cease,” said the midfielder Maurico Alfaro, who is now the national coach. “The people united at least for a day. That was our greatest gift: the country was suffering deeply and we had the pressure of trying to diminish that suffering, despite being inferior to our rivals in Central America.”

More than 70,000 people lost their lives in that period. “Fortunately we just witnessed it from the outside and none of our teammates were killed,” said the midfielder Silvio Aquino. “But you never knew. If a soldier asked for a ride that could be enough to be attacked. Sometimes, driving to the capital, you would find dead bodies beside the road. It was difficult to keep focused.”

Step by step, though, the Salvadorian minnows left several teams behind, including Honduras, Canada, Haiti, Cuba and the giants Mexico, to secure a ticket for Spain.

“The Mexicans underestimated us,” said the midfielder Miguel Díaz Arevalo. “They were thinking that we played with a square ball and we taught them a lesson. We showed the spirit of a real Cuscatlan Indian to Hugo Sánchez and his mates. If you flick through the newspapers, you’ll find that some of their fans killed themselves after we beat them. It was historic.”

The assistant manager Salvador Mariona promised to grow a moustache and keep it for a very long time if El Salvador pulled off the miracle of qualifying. Mariona honoured his word: he shaved it off only 20 years later.

Being in a World Cup was a matter of pride, but losing so heavily couldn’t easily be forgotten. Their celebratory mood began to change as the draw was made. “Argentina were the defending champions, Belgium had been runners up in the European championship and Hungary arrived with a goal-scoring record in World Cups,” said the defender Carlos Recinos, who is now the owner of a shoe store. “We couldn’t have had worse luck.”

El Salvador were the last of the 24 teams to arrive in Spain. They got there only three days before their debut against the Hungarians, after a tiresome three-day journey: a muscle-killer. “Our itinerary seemed as though it had been planned by the enemy,” said the defender Jaime Rodríguez. “Eight days before playing the Hungarians, they made us play a friendly against Grêmio, then we jumped on a plane to Guatemala, spent a night in the airport, then flew to Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and finally arrived in Madrid. From there we took yet another plane to Alicante. When we finally got there, we felt the time difference. We were six hours behind European time. We couldn’t get any decent sleep before our debut. Honduras, in contrast, had arrived in Spain a month before the competition.”

Some of the players nearly missed the first flight because of an argument over unpaid wages. “I went to the bank and then sprinted to the airport. We didn’t want to travel without settling the matter first,” said Jovel. “The players were demanding payment of six months of unpaid wages. Finally, someone from the military government accepted that they had fallen behind in the payments and took the cash from the education budget.”

The executive lounge at Barajas airport was not exactly waiting for them either. “Some of the Spaniards had not been informed that we had qualified for the World Cup,” said Recinos. “I think they were expecting Mexico.” The tired players weren’t allowed into the lounge and had to wait for their connecting flight sitting on the floor. A couple of hours later, when the squad arrived in Alicante, several Mexican flags were there as a welcome message. “And the bus that was waiting for us didn’t even have our country’s name either,” Recinos added.

El Salvador’s football federation, whose president was Félix Mayorga Castillo, incredibly decided to register only 20 players out of the possible 22. Gilberto Quinteros and Miguel González were left behind, according to the president, “because a 20-man squad was more than enough”. He tried to convince them by adding that the Germans had done the same. Which, of course, was not true. “It was a big blow for the squad,” said the goalkeeper Ricardo Mora, “because not only did the federation take two officials instead of two players who had been with us through the whole of the qualifiers, but also, these two members didn’t attend a single game. They simply went away soon after arriving, to go on a European tour.”

The two players eventually made the trip, but only because their teammates paid for their tickets and expenses. “Each of us handed them about 600 colónes,” said the defender José Luís Rugamas, currently the interim manager of the national team. The two weren’t registered, though, so they travelled effectively as fans and therefore were not allowed to pose in the squad photo. For the chaotic Salvadorians, even getting the photo right was an achievement. “Somebody had provided us with suits and ties, but they forgot to give us shirts,” said Rodríguez. “We didn’t have any, so we put some money together and bought a lot of shirts, negotiating the price down as much as possible.” 

The team found accommodation in a shooting lodge near Alicante. “We were treated as third-class visitors,” said Mora. “The bags and kits that Fifa gave us were old and had been used. Most of them actually bore logo of the 1974 World Cup. It was shameful.”

And it wouldn’t get any better. El Salvador had problems on every front. They didn’t have any balls for training sessions. “The officials told us that they had been stolen,” said Rodríguez. “So after jogging a bit, we sent a player to the Hungarian camp, asking for some balls. They had the 25 balls Fifa had sent to every team and they lent us a couple. That was a day before the game.”

Also, of the seven sets of kit sent by Adidas, four were missing. “The officials told us that they were for the U20 squad, but it was a lie,” said the defender Mario Castillo, now a garage mechanic. “They just kept two of the blue kits for themselves.” The players decided to wear white shirts and to keep the blue ones as a souvenir. “Having to play in white was difficult for us, but somebody said that the TV had ordered us to do so, but at least we could keep the only blue kit we had,” Castillo said.

Another problem came when they started watching the World Cup games on television. “We discovered that all the teams had presents to offer to their opponents,” said Mora. “Flags, jerseys, even football books. We were of course empty-handed. Not even pins to gave away as a goodwill gesture. Fortunately I saw a pine tree in the hotel garden and chopped a branch off. Using a Swiss army knife I crafted the letters of ‘El Salvador’. We gave them that as a gift.”

The night before the game, a Spanish agent offered the squad a videotape of the Hungarians in action. Once again, the players collected some money to buy it. “‘They play just like Paris Saint-Germain,’ our manager told us while we watched it,” said Castillo. “We had beaten them two weeks before. ‘We have to go and attack them as much as possible,’ he said. That was the biggest mistake of all time.”

The assistant manager José Castro admitted the game plan went horribly wrong. “We had previously played against Denmark, Mexico, Paris Saint-Germain, River Plate, Grêmio, always doing the same,” he said. “Our record showed us that we were capable of more than just trying to sit back and get a point.” 

“We took the chance of taking the World Cup as a challenge, but also as a celebration of having gone so far with so many complications,” said Jorge ‘Magico’ González, probably the best Salvadorean footballer ever. “El Salvador were the first team from Central America to qualify twice for a World Cup.”

The 23,000 people who attended the Estadio de Nuevo Elche and paid 800 pesetas (about £40) for a ticket could have never guessed that they were going to watch a historic game. “When the national anthem was played, we forgot about everything we had been through,” said González. “It was emotional.” Many people believe he was named Man of the Match for his performance in the game against Hungary but that’s not true. The award didn’t exist. What is true is that he was praised for his performance.

The Spanish press only cared about the civil war. The Spanish press referred to them as guerrilla men, but players seem to agree it was meant affectionately. In any case, all the pre-match questions were related to the civil war and internal problems. The president of the federation accused journalists of distracting the players with their questions. “They’ve earned US$4,000 for their participation. And the whole adventure cost $1.5 million, so it’s not fair to call us the poorest team in the tournament.”

In 90 minutes, the situation would change drastically.

The circumstances weren’t great anyway, but everything got much worse when Tibor Nyilasi, the Hungary captain, scored the first goal after just three minutes. “It was my 50th cap and it was very special,” said Nyilasi. “I scored the 1-0 and the 10-1. That game is impossible to repeat. Had we played it a hundred times, we would never have racked up 10 goals. Actually they weren’t such a bad team as the result suggests. The problem was that they just tried to go forward rather naively.” He received a Seiko watch (which he still has) bearing the World Cup mascot, for scoring the second-quickest goal of the tournament.

The odds weren’t great, but 3-0 at half-time wasn’t that bad. “They had a number of goal attempts,” said Nyilasi. “We weren’t sure that the game was over.”

Some of the El Salvador players had obscured the Adidas logo on their jerseys. “Puma had offered seven of us $500 if we used their boots,” said Joaquin Ventura. “The others, feeling insulted, decided to boycott Adidas by placing an adhesive tape over their logo, but during the game, the tapes came unstuck and fell off. Distractions like that cost us as well.”

Worse, Magico González had stomach problems but he had asked to play even if he was suffering from dehydration. Rugamas played carrying a knock and lasted just 27 minutes.

But the real issue came when a defensive mix-up made it 4-0. “We’d never shipped more than three goals before,” said Díaz Arevalo. “When they struck the fourth one, we really started losing our nerve.” He watched the game from the stands and still thanks the doctors who didn’t let him to play because injury.

For the fourth goal, Jovel still swears he was temporarily deaf. “After getting a kick in my face,” he said, “I lost my hearing for several minutes. Mora apparently shouted to me that he was behind me, but I didn’t hear and I tried to kick the ball away, but failed. A Hungarian scored in an empty goal.” 

After the fourth goal, chaos was unleashed. Fearing the worst, the manager Pipo Rodríguez told the substitute goalkeeper Eduardo Hernández to get ready, but he refused to go on in the circumstances. “We didn’t argue about it,” said Mauricio Rodríguez. “Actually I wanted to protect Mora from letting more goals, but then I realised that I might burn two goalkeepers on the same day. I left Mora on the pitch.”

The youngest keeper in the tournament at 17, Mora was long seen as the laughing stock of his country, but he still insists that one action went unobserved by the critics. “Everybody talks about the 10 goals, but nobody says that I also made the tournament’s best save in that game,” he said. “I don’t remember it, I just watched it on TV. I played the last six minutes with concussion for that save.” 

Still, the poor Salvadorians had time for a hint of a smile. Luís Ramírez Zapata, nicknamed ‘Pelé, scored El Salvador’s only goal that day, which still stands as the only goal they’ve scored in their two World Cup appearances (in 1970, they lost all three games, failing to score and conceding nine goals). Even though it was 5-0 at the time, he celebrated it as wildly as Marco Tardelli would celebrate his goal in the final. Pelé’s teammates couldn’t believe it. “Two of them rushed in and told me to shut up, because the last thing we wanted was to make the Hungarians get angrier,” said Zapata, who is now manager of Aguíla. “I think they were right to warn me, but it was too late and I was too euphoric. The Hungarians scored five more in less than half an hour.”

El Salvador were totally unbalanced, with four forwards on the pitch and a non-existent defence. Hungary’s László Kiss became the only substitute to score a hat-trick in the World Cup; it was also the quickest ever World Cup hat-trick. “It was a terrible accident for them, but an accident that will remain forever,” said Kiss. “No other team can repeat such a result in the present age. The poor sods probably thought that they could beat us and attacked us gung-ho: what a terrible mistake.”

By the time Nyilasi scored the 10th, the man who climbed a ladder to change the scores had to improvise a way to add a second figure.

Győző Martos was the only unhappy Hungarian that day: he had to mark the daring Magico González. Even if he wasn’t the official man of the match, González made it into the tournament’s Best XI and signed for Cadiz. Some of the Salvadorian players still claim that the Hungary match was the best they played in the tournament. The shame, though, was unbearable. “Of course nobody swapped shirts,” said Jovel. “We weren’t in the mood. We did it after the following games.”

After the match, the Belgium manager Guy Thys said that El Salvador were “Fifa’s biggest shame.” He later backed off. “I got carried away,” he said. “In the two following games, they showed that they had just had a nightmare start, but they weren’t such a bad team after all.”

No matter how difficult it was, they couldn’t let self-pity set in. The captain Norberto Huezo gathered his players and gave them new guidelines. “From now on, the manager doesn’t decide anything else,” he said. “We will play defensively and recover our pride. It’s our call, only we can save ourselves.”

“It’s true,” said Jovel. “We decided on the line-ups and the tactics. Having played something like 30 friendly games, we realised that we didn’t know how to defend. And just in a week’s work, we improved a lot.”

A sign of improvement came in the first official practice match after the thrashing. “The waiters from our hotel in Alicante challenged us and we played them,” said Joaquin Ventura, now working as bodybuilder instructor. “I guess they were trying to cheer us up. And it was like a small revenge. We beat them by a number of goals, but I can’t remember the result.” They also beat the Spanish third-division side Torremolinos 4-2.

Before losing 1-0 against Belgium in their second game, their relationship with the hotel staff prompted another crisis. “We had given one of the waiters a nickname and he found out,” said Ventura. “It was a funny nickname but he took it very badly and replied to us in a rude way. When the hotel managers found out, they fired him. We were appalled, so we started a hunger strike to get him back. And we succeeded.”

During the tournament, a small earthquake hit El Salvador and two players had to be told to stay in Spain rather than going to check on their families. “We could hardly make any calls,” said Silvio Aquino, the only outfield player in the squad who didn’t play a minute. “They charged a fortune for calls.” Unhappy, he reportedly tried to leave with the third-choice goalkeeper,José Luis Munguia.

Against Argentina, they suffered yet another setback, and the chance of a walkover as the official in charge had forgotten to take all the players’ documents. “We were in the dressing-room and the referee came to tell us that our IDs were missing,” said Mora. “He gave us 45 minutes to solve the problem but our hotel was 50 miles away. I doubt that we had a helicopter to get them. And the traffic was impossible. I bet that they finally allowed us to play without our credentials, just out of pity.”

El Salvador’s last World Cup game was hard-fought and often got out of control. “[The Argentina midfielder Américo] Gallego called me ‘a dirty guerrilla man’,” said Díaz Arevalo, now a schoolteacher, “so I reminded him that the English had bombed their little ships in the Atlantic. We got carried away.”

Some Salvadorians claim that they had heard Maradona say that he alone would score 12 goals against them. “For being too arrogant, he couldn’t score a single one against our defence,” said Díaz Arevlao. “On the pitch, I reminded him of that and he laughed. If it hadn’t it been for a couple of mistakes, we would have drawn 0-0.” The game turned violent. Argentinians complained about scything tackles. Salvadorians still criticise the Bolivian referee Luis Barrancos for the penalty kick he awarded. In one of the arguments, the El Salvador defender Pancho Osorto kicked Barrancos in the backside, but when the referee turned round he couldn’t work out who had done it and so let him go unpunished.

Maradona’s man-to-man marker was Jaime Rodríguez, who now has a photograph of him marking the Argentiniain signed with the words, “To Jaime, with love, Diego 10.”

There were kind gestures, too. Paco Jovel had asked Kempes to swap shirts after the game. “To my surprise, when the referee blew his whistle, he was in one area and I was in the other. I thought I would never get him. But he came looking for me and gave me his jersey. Amazing,” said Jovel.

The two players selected for the post-match doping test, Mario Castillo and Mauricio Alfaro, now admit that they drank too much beer and left the stadium “in a happy state of mind”, only to find out that the team bus had left without them. “We hailed a taxi,” said Alfaro, who remembers the Argentina keeper Ubaldo Fillol congratulating them on their World Cup performances. Perhaps it was the booze. “The problem,” he said, “is that they offered you water, soft drinks or beer. And we obviously started asking for beers.”

By that time, the adventure was over. At least five players stayed in Spain and went on holidays. The manager Mauricio Rodríguez, the youngest in the World Cup, never coached a football team again. He moved into engineering, claiming that he could make much more money from it. But his name had been blacklisted long before his decision. His assistant José Castro also quit forever. “Psychologically and morally I wasn’t capable of going on after that,” he said. “What happened in Spain was too much for me.”

Some players were threatened when they went back home. In the best cases, they were just ridiculed, becoming the national disgrace. “When we qualified for the World Cup we were heroes and useful, then after we lost we were a disgrace and therefore disposable,” said Jovel. “Some years later, we weren’t even allowed into football stadiums for free. In any conversation, the 10-1 came up.”

Apart from González, most of them carried on with their careers carrying the cross of being involved in the most embarrassing World Cup game of all time. “Everybody looked at the effects, nobody cared about the causes,” he said.

“A bad performance can always be an accident,” said Zapata. “Everybody remembers the number 10 but nobody remembers my goal. I would have liked a proper tribute but they were waiting for us to insult and mock us. As the years went by, they even cancelled our free passes to attend the league games as fans.” 

For 25 years, the players lived in despair. But then a local newspaper, El Díario de Hoy, decided to act as a peacemaker. Their editor Claudio Martínez travelled to Budapest and invited the Hungarians to El Salvador one by one. Gabor Poloskei, the assistant manager at MTK, accepted right away. “It seemed an honourable initiative and a nice chance to visit that country,” he said. “Besides, it was impossible not to feel a bit of guilt for what they went through. Had the score been 3-3 at half-time, nobody would have said it was unfair.”

In 2007, the El Salvador squad reunited to play out their revenge in San Salvador. The 22,000 tickets at the Cuscatlan stadium quickly sold out. Because of the players’ age, the pitch was for a five-a-side. The players were welcomed with a standing ovation and commemorative medals. They also received a set of DVDs showing the three matches of the World Cup. The event’s slogan was “25 years later, we start over, and it’s 0-0”.

Magico González had doubts when he found out about the idea. “What if we lost by a number of goals again?”

Actually, the game couldn’t have started in a more frightening way. Hungary raced into a 2-0 lead, but El Salvador eventually came back. Pelé Zapata, once again, was the hero with a potent header in stoppage time. A 2-2 draw was celebrated as a victory. “We have to congratulate the people who decided to offer us this tribute,” said Alfaro. “We had overcome so many difficulties to qualify and our efforts couldn’t be marred just because of one bad game. I feel like after 25 years of suffering, I’m finally sinless.”