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Copa 71: ‘These women were gaslit. Imagine playing a sport at the highest level and then being told, that didn’t exist’

Two decades before the first Fifa Women’s World Cup, six teams competed in front of huge crowds in Mexico City in an almost-forgotten tournament

In 1991 the first Fifa Women’s World Cup was held in China. There have been eight more since then. But they represent only a fraction of the complicated history of international women’s soccer. Twenty years before that first Fifa tournament, teams from Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy and Mexico played before huge crowds at Azteca stadium, in Mexico City – a competition revisited in a remarkable new documentary, Copa 71.

“It didn’t even have a name,” says Rachel Ramsay, one of the film’s directors. “These events didn’t have names. Before Copa in 1971, there was an Italian one the year before. During the 1980s there were tournaments in Asia. In the 1890s there were games between England and Scotland. In the 1920s there were leagues in Britain. In Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, post-Mussolini, after the ban on women’s football was lifted, there were lots of tournaments going on. So there’s a huge history of women’s football that still has to be explored.”

As a producer, Ramsay has chronicled Liverpool’s title-winning 2020-21 season, the 24 Hours of Le Mans race of 2016, and the life of cricketing god Sachin Tendulkar.

“You get to spend time with people who have achieved completely extraordinary things,” she says. “Extraordinary athletes don’t tend to express themselves in words. They express themselves on the pitch or the track, and it’s your role to help translate their story into something that’s accessible. And now we’ve found a group of women who, without necessarily knowing it, helped to change the course of history. It’s a huge privilege to tell that story, but it’s also a responsibility, because for over 50 years they weren’t allowed to tell it.”


The 1971 tournament was organised by the Federation of Independent European Female Football after Televisa, a big Mexican media company, decided to capitalise on the Pelé-headlined men’s World Cup of 1970. The final, between Mexico and Denmark, remains what is said to be the best-attended women’s sporting event in history, reportedly attracting more than 112,500 spectators. And yet, when Ramsay began researching her film, the competition didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

“Why?” asks Serena Williams, one of the documentary’s executive producers, during Copa 71′s introductory narration. “Because all the players on the pitch were women.”

The first recorded international women’s soccer match took place between England and Scotland on May 7th, 1881. Four years later the British Ladies’ Football Club visited Belfast for a series of “Ireland vs England” exhibition matches. Women’s leagues and teams, often linked to factories, unions or the suffrage movement, exploded in the early years of the 20th century, only then to disappear. Elena Schiavo, who represented Italy, talks in Copa 71 about getting into fights when she tried to play – and then being packed off to sewing school.

As the soccer historian David Goldblatt explains, “To understand the reasons for the resistance to women’s football you have to go back to the 19th century. Right from the beginning, there’s a real energy for women’s football. And in England by 1917 you have perhaps 100 clubs. And the numbers are building. Many doctors started publishing articles in very reputable journals, saying that football is dangerous for women, that this is bad for women’s health and their wombs and their ovaries. And so in 1921 the English Football Association said to all of its members, If you allow women to use your facilities you will be banned and excluded from the Football Association. In Italy and Brazil it becomes a criminal offence for women to play football.”

Janice Emms was 19 when she got the call-up to play in Copa 71. The centre forward quit her job as a bank clerk in Bedfordshire and travelled to Mexico, where she scored both goals in the fifth-place playoff match against France. (It must be in the DNA – her daughter Gail Emms won a silver medal for badminton at the 2004 Olympics.)

Janice Emms recalls plenty of perplexed responses in the early 1970s. “Don’t be daft – women don’t play football” was standard. Her parents and brothers were unfailingly supportive, however. “It was just such an amazing opportunity,” she says. “I couldn’t turn down the chance to go out to play in Mexico City. And, yes, I had to give my job up because they wouldn’t allow me the time off. But playing in the World Cup completely outweighed the boring job in Trustee Savings Bank.”

The Mexico player Elvira Aracen, who recalls playing on baked dirt while the men played on grass, relates the moment when the home side threatened to strike to secure payment for participating. Electrifying archival footage – at odds with a New York Times headline, “Soccer goes sexy south of border” – shows the beautiful game at its most rugged. A spirited semi-final between Mexico and Italy descended into a brawl.

“It was no holds barred, that’s for sure,” says Emms. “It was very physical. When we played both Argentina and Mexico, we ended up with two broken legs. The tackles were flying in. But that’s how it was in those days. If you got tackled you just got up and got on with it. You didn’t roll around as if you’d been hit by a double-decker bus, like some of the men do these days.”

The Lost Lionesses, as they are now called, were a huge hit in Mexico – after they were knocked out they were asked to stay until the end of the tournament. Any hopes of a triumphant return home were soon dashed, however. The players were immediately banned for six months.

For Carol Wilson, worse was to come. The former England captain had loved soccer for as long as she could remember. Growing up in Newcastle, she saw Denis Law and the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jack. The night before she flew to Mexico she watched her hero, George Best, playing in Luton. When she got back from Copa 71 she asked her dad to accompany her to an event she’d been invited to at St James’ Park. Unhappily, the compere began to roast women’s football and humiliate her.

“So I thought, well, I’m done,” she says on the phone from Norfolk. “I didn’t talk about it again for 50 years, even to my family. My son didn’t know until he saw me on Sky News one night, and he said, ‘What’s all this about? I’m ecstatic we are able to tell the story now. We wanted to get our story out to inspire young girls to think, ‘We can do this – there’s a pathway.’”

For Rachel Ramsay, Copa 71 is a corrective to five decades of hidden history. “These women were gaslit,” she says. “We want the audience to feel like they are in the stadium with the women themselves, because for them, for years, it was sort of living in a parallel universe. Imagine being a woman and playing a sport at the highest level and playing the tournament of your life. And then you are told, ‘That didn’t exist.’ There’s another world where these women were celebrated as athletes. And that world existed for a few weeks in Mexico in the summer of 1971.”

Copa 71 is in cinemas from Friday March 8th