Copa 71 (Kino Lorber, NR)

I used to think the first Women’s World Cup was held in 1991 in China, with the United States winning that inaugural championship. Turns out I was only half right: that was the first FIFA Women’s World Cup.* But twenty years earlier, in Mexico, six women’s national football teams (from Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy and Mexico) battled for the right to be crowned world champions. 

Copa 71, a documentary directed by Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine and whose executive producers include Venus and Serena Williams and Alex Morgan, tells the story of that 1971 world cup, with ample attention to the context and significance of the event. It’s educational in the best sense, and also a lot of fun, featuring a wealth of game footage and other archival materials, interviews with women who played in the tournament, a lively soundtrack by Rob Lord, and crisp editing by Arturo Calvete and Mark Roberts.

Today, millions of girls and women play football, but it was not always so. In fact, as Copa 71 reminds us, for years women in many countries (including the U.K.) were prohibited by law from playing football, on the grounds that doing so might damage their reproductive organs. Such laws came about after professional medical journals published articles by people who should know better attesting to that “fact,” which turns out to be about as grounded in reality as Charles Darwin’s belief that men represented a higher stage of evolution than women. Seriously, if we’re going to worry about genitals at risk of damage from playing a contact sport, women would not be the first category that comes to my mind.

The women interviewed in Copa 71 recount the barriers they had to overcome just to do something as simply and enjoyable as play football. Carol Wilson of England recalls that girls never had the chance to play football at school, just netball and field hockey, but that she was able to play five-a-side with male colleagues after joining the Air Force. Silvia Zaragoza of Mexico recalls having to play in secret because her father didn’t consider it a proper activity for a girl. Elena Schiavo of Italy recalls being the only girl who played, and having to fight her way into the boys’ games. And so on and so forth–any girl who played sports 30 or 40 years ago will be familiar with the attitudes these women had to confront and overcome just to play perhaps the most popular sport in the world.

Some people just don’t like to share, and the male power structure of football at the time definitely didn’t want to share the beautiful game with women. Despite the shocking sexism sometimes on display, however, the mood of Copa 71 remains mostly upbeat, as it should, because these women not only persisted but triumphed. That it took another twenty years for FIFA to join the party, however reluctantly and incompletely, and that full equality has not yet been reached, doesn’t mean that we should not celebrate the triumphs that have occurred.

Copa 71 documents one such triumph—a well-publicized and well-attended woman’s sporting event (the games were televised and heavily covered in the press, while the final sold out the 110,000-set Azteca Stadium in Mexico City) that succeeded despite the best efforts of the powers that be to prevent it. Be sure to keep watching through the credits, which feature team photos and list the complete rosters for each country that competed. | Sarah Boslaugh

* Officially the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup” because apparently more is more when it comes to naming sporting events, you have to get a reference to the sponsor in there somehow, and FIFA refused to allow the use of the name “World Cup” for a tournament played by mere women. Yes, I’m still pissed off, just as I am at the IOC for refusing to allow an international competition featuring LGBTQ+ athletes to use the word “Olympics” in their title (that’s why it’s called “The Gay Games”).

Copa 71 is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber.

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