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Copa 71

The #1 record holder for attendance at a women’s sporting event in history was a gauntlet fought on and off the field, a feat you likely haven’t heard of. It’s Copa 71, the first, though unofficial, women’s soccer World Cup. Co-directed by James Erskine and Rachel Ramsey and executive produced by tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams and soccer star Alex Morgan, “Copa 71” chronicles the fight for women’s right to play soccer and the revolutionary 1971 grassroots tournament that followed. 

“Copa 71” comprises interviews with the players and archival footage and photographs that tell not only the overarching story of how the tournament came to be but the individual women’s relationships with the sport. Like many things, when these women were growing up, soccer was considered for men only. Mexican player Silvia Zaragoza describes playing in secret as a child, knowing her father would hit her if she was caught because it was not “how girls should behave.” Italian player Elena Schiavo chronicles a memory of beating up the schoolboys who wouldn’t let her play, and averse to a life of “marriage, kids, and cooking,” English player Carol Wilson joined the Air Force instead, saying she thought, “I bet if I join the Air Force, I’ll be able to play football there.”

This international social disbarment was coupled with an institutional ban as well. In 1921, the Football Association of England banned women from partaking on official member grounds (the most accessible fields)—a ban that did not lift until 1970. 

Along with the many social movements of the 1960s, women's soccer teams began to form during the decade despite social sentiment. “Perhaps it was a political act,” Elvira Aracén of Mexico remembers. With the formation of these teams, the players recall the mockery and sexualization that came with the men who came to watch them play. And yet, inspired by a localized women’s tournament in Italy the year prior, businessmen saw potential dollar signs in a Women’s World Cup held in Mexico in 1971 in defiance of FIFA’s many attempts and threats to prevent it.

The act of women playing soccer was treated not only with societal shame but proposed pathology in claims that the sport was poor for women’s breasts, wombs, and overall health. It was considered dirty, immoral, and disrespectful, and yet Copa 71 pridefully carried on. The event carried levels of poetic justice: FIFA president Stanley Rous threatened to ban Mexico from future cups if they allowed the women to play in the official stadiums. In lieu of this threat, Copa 71 was moved to the Palisco and Azteca, two of the country’s largest arenas. To fill the 110,000 seats, unyielding promotions followed.

“Copa 71,” in depicting the tribulations and history of the sport and event, also takes precious time to let the women tell their stories. From fun-loving memories of buses breaking down on the road to strong-chinned recollections of fighting for compensation, the film tells the story from all sides. Pride and rivalries are reawakened with captivating inspiration and, sometimes, hilarity as we see their competitive edges come back to life in real-time, undiluted, over 50 years later. 

However, an undercurrent of sisterhood runs through the film, an acknowledgment of the cross they bore together. These women, who hailed from France, Italy, Mexico, Argentina, Denmark, England, and more, united under a passion for their sport and the conviction for their right to play it. “Copa 71” is stirring, exciting, and lively, a kinetic tale that finally spotlights the revolutionary event that didn’t quite turn the tide but certainly started the wave. 

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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Copa 71 movie poster

Copa 71 (2024)

91 minutes

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