A new documentary feature listing Alex Morgan, Serena and Venus Williams as executive producers premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival focusing on the 1971 Women’s World Cup in Mexico.
A Dogwoof production, Copa 71 is a 90-minute celebration of the greatest women’s sporting event of the 20th century, an event which drew six-figure crowds still in excess of the records being set today. Narrated by Serena Williams against a backdrop of the female empowerment anthems of the day, the story is told by those players who took part and given historical context by modern World Cup winners, Morgan and Brandi Chastain as well as football historian, David Goldblatt.
The recent Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand was the ninth organised by the world’s governing body FIFA since the first offical tournament in 1991. Two decades earlier, under the organization of the independent Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF) and bankrolled by Italian alcoholic beverage company Martini & Rossi, two unofficial championships were staged – the first in Italy – the year before the first FIFA-recognized women’s international match between France and Netherlands in April 1971.
The second unofficial tournament was staged in Mexico, a country fresh from hosting the 1970 men’s World Cup. The showpiece stadiums used then, in Guadalajara and Mexico City, were utilized once more and a huge marketing drive was employed to ensure they were filled.
Matches involving hosts Mexico attracted huge crowds to the Estadio Azteca, with an estimated 100,000 at the Opening Match against Argentina and even more – reportedly 110,000 – at the final between Mexico and Denmark. Both figures are in excess of the official world record attendance for women’s soccer set in 2022 of 91,648 at Camp Nou for Barcelona’s UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-final against VfL Woflsburg.
English directors Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine are specialists in sport’s films, previously combining on Le Mans 3D – following drivers at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, Sachin: A Billion Dreams – a feature on legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, and The End of the Storm – focusing on Liverpool FC’s 2019/20 title-winning season.
The film tracks down members of each of the six teams involved, including Silvia Zaragoza of Mexico, Carol Wilson, the captain of England, Elba Selva of Argentina, Nicole Mangas from France, Elena Schiavo from Italy and Ann Stengard and Birte Kjems from the eventual winners, Denmark, to share their memories of playing at the tournament interspersed with archive footage painstakingly pieced together to tell their amazing story.
There is poignancy in the women explaining how they followed their passion to play soccer against a backdrop of hostility and sexism. Most returned from their exploits on the world stage to indifference and were eventually forced to give up the game which was decades away from professionalism. Once FIFA assumed control of the women’s game in the years that followed, the impact of Copa 71 was forgotten and it took two decades for an official FIFA Women’s World Cup to be inaugurated.
Academic and author, Professor Jean Williams, a specialist in the hidden history of women’s soccer, was at the world premiere in Toronto on Thursday. She explained to me that “the film captures the story of an important breakthrough in tournament football for women, with a live audience at the final of 110,000, still not matched by any official FIFA tournament 50 years on. The scope, scale and setting remains a landmark for how to sell women’s sport as compelling to a mass audience.”
Williams was also a consultant for the film, helping reunite players from the tournament now in their 60s and 70s. “The research was in someway, helped by the pandemic,” she told me. “since a lot of the players were at home all over the world and hence electronic communication playing a central part of connecting players from the six teams.”
In 2019, the members of the England team – the so-called ‘Lost Lionesses’ – were reunited on the BBC’s The One Show. Williams revealed to me how they a chance event led to them coming face-to-face with their opponents from 48 years earlier.
“The England players were flown over by UEFA to the Women’s World Cup in France, where they bumped into players from the Argentinian team at the railway station. Each recognised one another, having not seen the opposition for 50 years.” In addition, “many of the Italians are still friendly with Rose Reilly, the Scottish striker (who played professionally in Italy), so those connections of half a century were also important.”
Chastain, who 28 years later would score the winning penalty kick during the 1999 final in front of the official World Cup record attendance of 90,185 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl begins the film by admitting she knew nothing about the 1971 Women’s World Cup. “I’m ashamed that I knew nothing about this incredible tournament. This was intentional, to hide women’s football.”