The bumpy road to the "lost" Women's World Cup of 1971

Jon O'Brien

BY Jon O'Brien

8th Mar 2024 Sport

4 min read

The bumpy road to the "lost" Women's World Cup of 1971
Attracting huge crowds in host nation Mexico, the Women's World Cup of 1971 proved there was a global appetite for women’s football. But it was a bumpy road for both its organisers and players to get there, as we look at the lead-up and the tournament to mark International Women's Day
Today sees the UK cinema release of Copa ‘71, a compelling documentary about the groundbreaking, but little-known, Women’s World Cup which took women’s football to new stadium-packed heights. But the road to the tournament, held in Guadalajara and Mexico City 43 years ago this summer, is arguably just as intriguing.
The Federation of Independent European Female Football had first attempted to put the women’s game on the international map in 1970 with an eight-team competition in which Denmark—essentially club side Boldklubben Femina—won against hosts Italy in front of 40,000 people. But having watched the colossal attendances for the men’s version that same year, the organisation realised they could tap into the insatiable appetite for the sport in Mexico.

Mexico versus the world

The FIEFF subsequently announced a follow-up intended to better represent the game’s global reach. And despite concerns over how its high temperatures and altitudes may impact players, the Land of Mariachi was eventually confirmed as the host nation. To say this didn’t go down well with the other governing bodies, however, is an understatement.
"The road to the tournament, held in Mexico 43 years ago this summer, is arguably just as intriguing"
FIFA was particularly keen to distance itself, describing the whole concept as outrageous while arguing that a Women’s World Cup would only be viable once the game is “controlled by national associations.” And far from welcoming another major sporting spectacle on home turf, the Mexican Football Federation issued fines to any team caught using its facilities. Luckily, the fact the Azteca Stadium and Estadio Jalisco were independently owned meant organisers could stick two fingers up to their obstructors. 
Sadly, the qualification stages were just as fraught. Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile were supposed to fight it out in a new South American qualifying phase. But this being 1971—women’s football was still pretty much outlawed in Brazil until the end of the decade—the infrastructures simply weren’t there. And with two of the three nations failing to meet the FIEFF’s requirements, Argentina booked their place by default.

Some European nations pull out

Things didn’t exactly go to plan in the four European qualifying groups of three either. Group 4’s West Germany, Switzerland and Spain all decided to pull out before a single ball had been kicked, a case of sour grapes perhaps considering the latter two nations, alongside Luxembourg, put in unsuccessful hosting bids.
Group 3’s Sweden and Belgium followed suit, giving reigning champions Denmark a free pass to the finals. And Group 2’s Czechoslovakia added to the list of no-shows, resulting in a winner-takes all showdown between France and the Netherlands. In perhaps the competition’s most remarkable turn of events, however, no one actually bothered to tell the two nations exactly what was at stake.

The winner takes all (once they know about it)

In the spring of 1971, roughly 1,000 fans turned up to the Stade Auguste Damette to watch France thrash the Netherlands 4-0 in what was presumed to be a run-of-the-mill friendly. In fact, it took several days for news to seep through that the “meaningless kickabout” had been an all-important World Cup decider (In their infinite wisdom, FIFA even decided to hail the confusing fixture as the first official women’s international). While the losers understandably launched a protest in vain, the winners belatedly toasted with a glass of champagne. Well, the few legally old enough to drink, that is.
"At the age of 19, England captain Carol Wilson was essentially an elder stateswoman of the team "
Indeed, the majority of players who headed to Mexico were still in their teens, the complete dearth of professional opportunities forcing managers to largely rely on those without any ongoing career obligations. The star of the tournament, for example, was Susanne Augustesen, a 15-year-old whose hattrick heroics in the final ensured Denmark held onto the trophy. England, meanwhile, selected 13-year-old Leah Caleb, with Gill Sayell and Chris Lockwood not much older. At the age of 19, captain Carol Wilson was essentially an elder stateswoman. 

England youngsters represent

Of course, the “Lost Lionesses” were yet another finalist who snuck in through the back door. Harry Batt’s team had finished above Austria but below Italy in the only European qualifying group to achieve completion. But as the sole runner-up, they were invited to make up the numbers when Group 4 entirely fell apart.  
Not that they could shout about it from the rooftops though. The miserly FA were prone to banning players who competed in any tournament they hadn’t officially sanctioned. “Certainly the younger ones had the feeling they’d done something really bad,” women’s football writer Carrie Dunn told The Guardian. “They didn’t even talk about it amongst themselves.” The Italian Football Federation, on the other hand, were more than happy to class the nation’s entire World Cup campaign as full internationals.
"Over 110,000 watched Denmark beat the hosts in the final, still a record attendance for a women's football match"
England ended up taking home the wooden spoon after defeats to Argentina and Mexico in the group stage, and then France in the fifth-place play off. Roughly 90,000 people watched Denmark beat Argentina and Mexico triumph over Italy in the semis, while an additional 20,000 turned up to the Estadio Azteca to see the Europeans win 3-0, still a record attendance for the women’s game.

“Going into the Tardis”

It was a far cry from where the road to Copa 71 started. “We had only played in the small qualifying tournament in Sicily, which was played on the park-type pitches we were used to,” England midfielder Lockwood told the BBC several decades later. “It was like going into the Tardis or to Narnia—being transported to a different world.”
It’s a world that would remain pretty much a secret until the first official Women’s World Cup in 1991 when a much more universal 48 teams from six different confederations would start a qualifying path, this time free of dropouts, bans and, perhaps most importantly, misunderstandings about the end goal. 
But as Copa 71 brilliantly documents, all those who made it to the first official World Cup and beyond undoubtedly all owe it to the unsung heroes of 1971. By showcasing such a high level of sporting prowess in front of such colossal crowds, its six competing nations ultimately laid the groundwork for the women's side of today’s beautiful game. 
copa71 poster
Copa 71 is in UK cinemas from March 8, 2024
Banner photo: Denmark win the Women's World Cup of 1971. Credit: New Black Films/Mirrorpix/Marina Amaral

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by 
subscribing to our weekly newsletter