It’s one thing to ask a casual soccer fan if they’ve ever heard of the 1971 Women’s World Cup and hear a “No.” It’s another to get the same response from two-time World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold-medalist Brandi Chastain. Yet that’s how Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s documentary Copa 71 begins. They lead the American superstar to the obvious answer about how she actually played in the “first” Women’s World Cup in 1991, then show her two-decades-old footage from the 110,000-seat Azteca Stadium and blow her mind.
With the help of historian David Goldblatt to contextualize the patriarchal and greedy stance of the FIFA organization at that time––and today, considering all that happened in Qatar––this film finally gives a definitive account of what happened to both allow such an event like Copa ‘71 to occur and let it be completely forgotten. The trendsetting athletes from Mexico, Argentina, England, Denmark, Italy, and France are given a platform to tell their stories for what might be the first time ever, considering how the sport ultimately failed them. English captain Carol Wilson admits she didn’t speak to any of her former teammates for 50 years.
The scaffolding is a familiar tale of corporate profiteering. While the men lording over FIFA saw their stronghold on the sport (achieved in large part by leveraging agenda-driven “studies” about soccer’s impact on women’s health to ban organized teams across Europe) as a means of retaining control, the Mexican capitalists who had just made record money hosting the men’s World Cup in 1970 saw easy dollar signs. With the infrastructure already in place, they could simply invite women over to play without worrying about any overhead. It was free cash.
The event was not without its hiccups, but Ramsay and Erskine do well not to dwell much on the minutiae of behind-the-scenes jockeying for power. They instead rightfully turn the cameras on the women who made the tournament possible with at least one interviewee from all six teams. And these women remember everything: the electricity of the crowd, the jubilation of every goal, and the out-of-body experience watching the other games on television. Women playing soccer on TV?! Silvia Zaragoza talks about practicing in secret on the roof of her neighbor’s house to avoid beatings from her father. Now she was being broadcast around the world.
Along with these first-hand accounts––and there are some spicy ones, considering the semi-final match between Italy and Mexico needed to be called ten minutes early after all hell breaks loose––the footage of the games themselves amaze too. The filmmakers’ focus on the Azteca (maybe the video from Guadalajara was lost?) with clips of pretty much every goal to really get a sense of the energy from players and fans alike. We get the celebrations. The saves. The fouls. Add some stunning still photography and a wealth of newspaper headlines and Copa 71 becomes an archival treasure trove of sports history.
It’s a much-needed one, too, Chastain is quick to remark once we move back to its present-day impact via epilogue. Now that she knows, there’s no forgetting about it. When people come up to her and say she was part of the beginning of everything that’s happening today in the sport, she admits she’s going to make a point to educate them on the fact that there were shoulders for her to stand on too––regardless of whether she knew at the time. Wilson, Zaragoza, Elena Schiavo, Elba Selva, etc. They were the real firsts. Whether FIFA agrees or not.
Copa 71 premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.