In August 1971, more than 100,000 football fans packed Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium for a historic tournament. Teams from England, France, Denmark, Argentina and Italy flew in for 21 days of matches alongside Mexico’s national team, while eager sponsors lined up for a piece of the action. The players, who received a hero’s welcome wherever they went, might as well have been the Rolling Stones.
They were, in fact, a group of around 100 women — many of them teenagers — taking part in the first unofficial Women’s World Cup. And just as quickly as they tasted fame, it was snatched away as the tournament was all but erased from football history.
In a new documentary premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in September, the global football event known as COPA 71 will finally get its due more than half a century later, mere months after the ninth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off in Australia and New Zealand. The irony, of course, is that as far as FIFA is concerned, the women’s games officially launched with the 1991 World Cup in China: Football’s international governing body still doesn’t acknowledge the Mexico tournament.
“Imagine if you played in front of 100,000 people, and you’re still told, ‘No, this didn’t happen to you,’” says Rachel Ramsay, co-director of “COPA 71.” “The idea that women’s football did not progress because women didn’t want it to is a myth that’s been percolating for a long time, along with the idea that women’s football was never commercial, that women didn’t want to play and that women weren’t any good. That’s what [this film] blasts out of the water.”
Produced by “Senna’s” Victoria Gregory and directed by Ramsay and “Sachin” helmer James Erskine, “COPA 71” opens with two-time Women’s World Cup champion Brandi Chastain looking puzzled as she’s shown footage of the tournament. Later, Team USA forward Alex Morgan is equally mystified when she’s told about the 1971 games.
“They literally had no idea,” says Erskine.
COPA 71 was organized by the Italy-headquartered Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF), and was set up in Mexico because it had just hosted the men’s 1970 FIFA World Cup. The existing infrastructure of the Azteca stadium and enthusiastic support of local sponsors made a women’s tournament not only appealing, but commercially savvy. Yet as the event came together, FIFA tried to prevent it from happening at all. While it did go ahead — and proved to be a smashing success — its legitimacy was undermined from the get-go, and the event failed to receive the international acclaim and attention it deserved. (FIFA was not approached to take part in the documentary beyond sharing archive of the org’s existing tournaments.)
Fast forward 50-odd years, and many of the original players are finally ready — thanks to the encouragement of Ramsay and Erskine — to tell their stories, beginning with the unbridled sexism they encountered growing up playing football, to their otherworldly experience in Mexico and finally the crushing realization upon returning home that no one gave a damn.
“The women were very, very generous and really wanted to share their life stories, but at the same time, they’ve been told for 50 years that this didn’t happen,” says Ramsay. “You can see that and feel that. A huge part of empowering anybody is to recognize what they’ve gone through and to say, ‘Yes, this did happen and you’re not mad.’”
Ramsay and Erskine, who previously collaborated on Prime Video series “This Is Football,” first got wind of the tournament in 2019 through a BBC Radio 4 interview with U.K. captain Carol Wilson. “I remember James calling me and just being like, ‘This is the perfect story,’” says Ramsay. “I had a quick Google, but there didn’t seem to be anything out there. But I thought, ‘Surely not. We’ve developed and researched so many stories like this; it can’t be one that we missed.’”
When the world went into lockdown, the team had the time and space to carry out a deep dive for archival material. As they located the players and secured interviews, they were able to access personal items commemorating the event that many of the women had held onto. “They kind of knew at the time that no one else was interested,” explains Ramsay.
“I remember the first time seeing some of those full-page color ads and newspaper coverage, and the photographs and stills were really mind-boggling,” adds Ramsay. “You still feel like the coverage of that tournament was bigger than some of the World Cup that we’re seeing at the moment.”
Adds Erskine: “We basically started out looking for snippets of VHS knocking around in someone’s garage and then working our way backwards.” If there were cameras in shot in the footage, that presented a new lead because someone, somewhere out there, knew something about that game. All told, it took 18 months to piece together footage from a variety of sources, including broadcast archives in Italy, France and Mexico and even Super 8 footage from audience members.
“There was no one big source that provided us with hours and hours of footage,” says Ramsay. “They’d all been chopped up, so it’s not like you have all the minutes of a match to work with. You have bits and bobs from different places.”
Backed from the beginning by U.K. documentary specialists Dogwoof, “COPA 71” was pitched at Danish documentary forum CPH:DOX in 2022 and received extensive interest from other partners. Ultimately, the team aligned itself with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook, which had a relationship with Serena and Venus Williams from the biopic “King Richard.” The tennis legends quickly boarded the project as executive producers, and Serena Williams — who co-owns Los Angeles football team Angel City — also lent her voice to a short segment at the beginning of the film.
“They really wanted to be championing the story and lending their voice to the chorus, to ensure that it could be as amplified as possible, into as many markets as possible,” says Erskine.
With the Women’s World Cup now almost a week in, it may be natural to wonder why the film isn’t releasing widely in order to leverage momentum around the sport. That was the original intention, says Erskine. “But our biggest realization when making the film was that the story was so much bigger, and we wanted to get it right.”
“If the film gets a bounce because the world is suddenly focused on women’s soccer via the World Cup, that’s great, but we made this film to be watched on any day of the week for the next 10, 20 or 30 years,” he adds. “We didn’t make it just to be ancillary content.”
Ramsay adds: “It’s a real boost for the film that everyone does believe that pegging it to the World Cup right now isn’t necessary for a success. That’s what people see: that it does stand on its own.”
Ultimately, every superhero has an origin story. And for the women of COPA 71, this is theirs.
“It makes it timely and continually relevant,” says Erskine. “We’re lucky to have this story at a time when these people are still with us. In five years’ time, we might be looking at a very different film.”
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