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  • Writer's pictureBrock Kingsley

Copa 71 Women's World Cup: Unveiling the Triumphs and Injustices

Copa 71 winners, Denmark

There is a lot of shame to be shared when it comes to women’s sports—lack of promotion and visibility, non-support of various teams and leagues, no pay equity, straw man arguments to justify sexism, and on and on. But perhaps nothing can be compared to one of the most egregious and blatant moments of dishonesty and sexism that happened after the incredible success of the (unofficial) 1971 Women’s World Cup in Mexico. Unofficial because it was held outside and independent of FIFA corruptness and in spite of that organization’s protests. A new documentary about this World Cup, Copa 71, is cause for both celebration and absolute rage: it allows us to see how far women’s sports (extrapolating from the subject of soccer/football) have come in the face of adversity, and leaves us to wonder where it would be now if not for the damage done.

An independent women’s football association first held a Women’s World Cup in Italy, 1970. But its ambitious Copa 71 in Mexico, with sponsorship from Martini & Rossi, was something different. Martini & Rossi paid for travel, accommodations, and uniforms of each of the six national teams: Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy, and Mexico. The goalposts were painted with pink hoops, stadium staff wore pink, the tournament mascot was Xochitl, a young girl in a football kit. FIFA refused to let the teams play in any stadium they controlled, so games were forced to be held in two of the three largest stadiums in the country: the Azteca in Mexico City, and Jalisco in Guadalajara. It’s not hard to see the ploy by FIFA to embarrass the women, the thought being they would be unable to fill such large venues. The opening match, Argentina vs. Mexico had 100,000 attendees, Mexico vs. England, 80,000, the World Cup final between Mexico and Denmark saw 110,000 people fill the Azteca.

Copa 71 takes pains to illuminate the almost pathological fear and suspicion of women’s soccer and by extension women’s bodies: if women can play sports and thereby obtain bodily autonomy what’s next for society? In England, women had been playing football nearly since its inception. Despite the fact that female football teams were drawing fans and support from their community, doctors promoted unfounded theories on possible damage to women’s breasts, their wombs. The English Football Association, in 1921, banned the playing of female football on any association member’s property, in effect outlawing women from playing organized football. The FA stated “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Never mind that at least one match drew at least 53,000 fans. The ban was lifted in 1970.

After the tournament, which saw Denmark as victors, teams returned home—some to celebrations, some to empty airports—to find that any support they thought they might have gained was non-existent. National football associations and Fifa dedicated their efforts to erase the success of Copa 71 from the wider conscious. FAs removed support, and FIFA clamped down on access to venues and dismissed the event out of hand. The film footage from Copa 71 was kept buried, unaccessible, for 50 years.

Women’s sports is going to continue to grow whether men like it or not. Viewership for the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament was up 103%, the WNBAs viewership was up 42% that same year. Between 2017 and 2019 viewership of women’s football in the UK grew from 11.7 million to 68.6 million. The 202 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship had 57.9 million viewers. People want to watch women’s sports and the numbers are proving that if given access, they will. The NWSL now has their own free streaming app and the 2024 season is being shown on multiple platforms: Amazon Prime, CBS, and ION. Accessibility to viewership is changing and growing, but what remains the same is the constant discrimination, the constant clinging to power of old hegemonic institutions and ways of thinking. There is fear and insecurity in not being able to control women (and what they do with their bodies), to make them fit into a box suitable for outdated, narrow-minded preconceptions. And that same ignorance only leads to the failure to recognize the importance of the women’s game, how sports can transcend the political in its ability to create room for others and form important, meaningful connections.


Brock Kingsley is a writer, artist, critic, and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. He is a regular contributor at the Chicago Review of Books.


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