Copa 71 Reaffirms the History Books for a Monumental Moment in Femme Football

Copa 71 screens at Perth Festival from Monday 20 – Sunday 26 November 2023

James Erskine and Rachel Ramsay’s energetic documentary Copa 71 is a routine sports tale of the underdogs (women’s footballers) going up against a dominant force (the patriarchy) and, for a brief moment in time, absolutely blitzing the sport of football. The film opens with Ramsay interviewing football legend Brandi Chastain, asking her when the first Women’s World Cup was held. Her understandable response is ‘1991’, where she played for America. Chastain is then presented with archival footage of a match taking place in a crowded stadium, the roar of the spectators pushing the tinny speakers of the iPad to its limits. It is clearly not 1991.

This is the final match of Women’s World Cup in 1971 where hometown team Mexico took on Denmark in front of a 110,000 strong crowd in the Azteca Stadium. Those kinds of spectator numbers suggest a monumental event that should be at the forefront of the mind of every football fan around the world, quickly followed by the question of why it took some twenty years for there to be another Women’s World Cup event.

Over a brisk ninety-minute runtime, Copa 71 does an impressive, albeit rudimentary, job of reaffirming the history books for this monumental moment in women’s football. Erskine and Ramsay are well-serviced by an extensive array of archival footage and photographs that allow for an intimate detailing of the formulation of the Mexico circuit of the World Cup event that was organised by the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF). That deep archive is partially thanks to the mammoth promotional operation that saw six countries (Denmark, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, France, and England) unite to compete for the cup.

Like the rest of the competing countries, Mexico is a football-mad country, as shown with a feverish reception that saw each team being received at airports like they were The Beatles. On the ground, that adoration continued as they were enlisted to speak at events and open shops, in between playing rounds in one of Mexico’s major arenas. The reception that each team received in Mexico is a complete opposite of how they were received in their home countries where they either struggled to play on suitable fields (matches often took place on dirt rather than the safer grass based fields), or they were flat out denied the opportunity to play due to the restrictive, controlling, and downright misogynistic stance from FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, which opposed any inclusion of women in the sport for decades.

The mindset that football is a masculine sport is swiftly dismantled thanks to that archival footage that shows players like 15-year-old Denmark player Susanne Augustesen scoring a hat-trick. It’s moments like these that leave you wondering just how many players were denied the chance to forge careers and become household names like Megan Rapinoe or Sam Kerr because of the iron fist ruling of FIFA. That footage is paired with interviews of players like Carol Wilson from England, Ann Stengard and Birte Kjems from Denmark, Silvia Zarazoga from Mexico, Nicole Mangas from France, and Elena Schiavo from Italy reflecting about the importance of having a World Cup in a time where feminist movements around the world were transforming society. Supporting their narrative is historian David Goldblatt, a figure who and providing necessary context for FIFA’s actions and paints them in the bleak perspective they deserve to be presented in.

Fifty-years removed from the events, the women talk with deep reverence and passion for the sport of football, with some presenting genuine heartbreak at being denied the chance to continue playing for their country. This is more than a sport, it’s a chance to represent their nation and women on the world stage. As such, there is a sense of nationalism at play here as shown by the distinctly biased commentary from the Mexican commentators and referees, particularly in the pivotal and intense Italy versus Mexico deciding match.

However, it’s an archive that’s marginally let down by the scattered presentation of information which notably omits mentioning that the 1971 Cup was the second FIEFF organised event after the 1970 Women’s World Cup in Italy. Of course, documentaries can’t contain every kernel of information about their subjects, but it does create a ‘pick and choose’ perspective that makes Copa 71 feel surface-level rather than exhaustively informative. Thankfully, the breathless editing by Arturo Calvete and Mark Roberts never gives you a moment to reflect on what you’re missing, encouraging an ‘in the moment’ mindset in the viewer. And that’s really where Copa 71 thrives: in the moment where it plays as a novel document about a forgotten time in history.

Copa 71 is a film that doesn’t operate in solitude as it sits comfortably alongside uncovered, once-hidden narratives like The Battle of the Sexes and The Divine Order as examples of women fighting for their place in our patriarchal society. This leads to the blessing and the curse of Copa 71; it’s refreshing and exciting to hear of the Women’s World Cup of 1971, but the manner that ‘femme football’ (as the commentator quips) and the hopes of the players are quashed feels all too familiar, making it difficult for the film to stand out amidst a wealth of similar narratives. This is not a criticism of the film itself, after all, it can’t help the oppressive pull of history and the dominance of the misogynistic behaviour of those in power, but rather a sign that even though society has progressed towards equality, it has still not gone far enough.

Ultimately, Copa 71 does leave you on enough of a high that you’ll be rushing back home to relive the glory of the Matilda’s World Cup campaign in 2023 (if that’s the team you barrack for), all the while shouting at the top of your lungs ‘Fuck FIFA.’

Directors: James Erskine, Rachel Ramsay

Featuring: Elvia Aracen, Brandi Chastain, Birte Kjems

Writers: James Erskine, Victoria Gregory, Rachel Ramsay

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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