Copa 71: the fascinating story of the unofficial Women’s World Cup

Using rich archive footage and interviews with former players, this compelling sports doc aims to restore the suppressed history of the 1971 Women’s World Cup into our collective cultural memory.

6 March 2024

By Rachel Pronger

Copa 71 (2024)
Sight and Sound

Football is never just football. Copa 71, an energising sports doc from James Erskine (The Battle of the Sexes, 2013) and Rachel Ramsay (and exec produced by Venus and Serena Williams), puts forward a case for the wider significance of the world’s most popular sport, using the fascinating story of the unofficial Women’s World Cup to tell a cautionary tale about the corrosive impact of institutional sexism on women’s hearts, minds and bodies. 

In 1971, six women’s football teams gathered in Mexico to compete for the title of world champions. The players – greeted as celebrities and stalked by paparazzi – competed in televised games in front of huge crowds. The final, which took place in front of 110,000 fans, remains the best attended women’s sports event in history. Yet this potential watershed moment has, until now, been largely forgotten. 

Copa 71 is Erskine and Ramsay’s attempt to correct this cultural amnesia. It takes a while to get going – framing interviews with a younger generation of footballers feel superfluous – but once the filmmakers allow the 1971 players to tell their own stories, narrating over slickly edited archive, Copa 71 becomes as gripping as any cup final. There’s plenty of inane misogyny on display in the vivid footage – the press are reassured that the player’s uniforms will be “as close as possible to hot pants” – but the astonishingly petty actions of Fifa, who objected to the tournament then used it as an excuse to systematically shut down women’s football around the world, are anything but laughable. 

Copa 71 (2024)

Controversies aside, it’s the players who make it worth watching – like down-to-earth Danish defender Ann Stengård, who calmly states, “I can knit and use a chainsaw… I don’t want to be put in a box.” 

Like 2021’s Summer of Soul, which also marshalled a rich trove of suppressed footage to reconstruct a forgotten episode from pop culture, Copa 71 is thrilling not just as a vivid work of montage, but also as an argument for reintegrating these lost chapters into our collective cultural memory. Its conclusion leaves us wondering what could have happened, in the world of sport and beyond, if women’s football had been allowed to keep growing instead of being crushed. 

Presumably, Copa 71 was finished before the end of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup, a historic success story, but one in which the final was overshadowed by a high-ranking Spanish official’s public misconduct. Football is never just football, no matter how much women players – and their fans – wish they would just be allowed to play the bloody game.

 ► Copa 71 is in UK cinemas from 8 March. 

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