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'An utterly beautiful film': Tracey Crouch reviews 'COPA 71'

1971 Women’s Final: Danish captain Lis Lene Nielsen celebrates her team’s win against home side Mexico | © New Black Films, [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

5 min read

A powerful and moving documentary of a sporting event airbrushed from history, COPA 71 is the insight into women’s football you didn’t realise you needed until now

Things you might know about 1971: Jim Morrison dies in a bathtub in Paris; Joe Frazier beats Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden; there are huge anti-Vietnam War protests across America; and the billboard is full of absolute classics. Things you don’t know about 1971: there was a women’s football “world cup” in Mexico, won by Denmark, in a final watched by 110,000 people in the Azteca Stadium that still, 53 years on, holds the record for attendance at a women’s sporting event.

COPA 71 tells the story of the tournament that appears in no records and that, made to feel ashamed by men in Fifa and their national federations, the women who participated barely spoke of again.

COPA 71 England
The England Women’s team | © New Black Films, [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

It is an utterly beautiful film. It is a wonderful celebration of women’s football, where determination, skill, fighting, hot pants and epic haircuts are all captured on Super 8 cameras. Co-directed by Rachel Ramsey and James Erskine, it is executively produced by Venus and Serena Williams and their trademark determination oozes frame by frame accompanied by a wicked soundtrack. This time, however, their opponent isn’t holding a tennis racket 20-odd metres away – it is the men who five decades ago airbrushed away a whole summer of women’s football, robbing women’s and girls’ interest and opportunities in a sport that is now growing faster than any other in the world.

It is a film made by women, about women, but not just for women

I cried when the film finished – its powerful story telling brought on a happy, sad, angry cry. I was born in 1975 and at primary school in the 80s I was banned from playing football at school as it wasn’t considered a sport for girls, a comment repeated in the film from a decade before. I genuinely thought I was the only girl who liked football. Why? Because men had decided to erase common knowledge of the women’s game from society.

COPA clash
Clash between Mexican and Italian players | © New Black Films, [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

As a kid I was too innocent to feel suppressed or oppressed. I simply didn’t know that other girls were playing football but, doing the job I do, I feel angry now. When Andy Burnham and I fought for the BBC to show England’s quarter final against France in the 2011 Women’s World Cup, we did so because we knew it would build momentum. And that seeing is believing. Where were the politicians standing up for female footballers then so that girls like me could see them and want to be like them? Did my predecessors in Parliament not do or say anything because they also thought girls and women shouldn’t play football? 

I wish Carol Wilson and Trudy McCaffery, just two of the English COPA 71 players featured in the film, had been in my life sooner. I found their journeys inspiring. Carol said she joined the RAF because she thought it was her best chance of playing football and Trudy brushed off the standard lazy misogynistic questioning from a male journalist politely but firmly. Ann, a Danish player, notes: “I can use a chainsaw, I can play football.”

COPA 71There are similar recollections of abuse, verbal and physical, by the other players from Italy, France, Argentina and Mexico. There are references to men coming to watch women’s football to “stare at legs” and “for a laugh” and then there is a comment from a historian about the official ban noting that in the 60s “all people who run football are men”. The sad thing is – despite the progress, the talent, the broadcasting deals, the professionalisation of the game, the money, the sold-out stadia – the above sometimes still feels true today. 

COPA 71, released on 8 March (International Women’s Day), is the insight into women’s football you didn’t know you needed until now. It is a film made by women, about women, but not just for women. But if you have ever been told you cannot do something, whether that is play football or anything else, because you are a woman, then brace yourself to come away emotionally messed-up while still in awe of the most amazing women who went off, did something incredible, and then returned to the rest of their lives silent and bereft of the glory they deserved. 

Tracey Crouch is Conservative MP for Chatham & Aylesford, chair of the Women’s Football APPG and former sports minister

Directed by: Rachel Ramsay & James Erskine
Executive producers:  Serena & Venus Williams and Alex Morgan
UK release: Friday 8 March

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