Home Entertainment ‘Copa 71’ Documentary Shows Hidden History of Women’s World Cup

‘Copa 71’ Documentary Shows Hidden History of Women’s World Cup


“Copa 71” begins with Brandi Chastain, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and legendary U.S. women’s soccer player, gawking at a screen. “This is unbelievable,” she says, looking at what the filmmaker has just handed her: footage of a stadium filled with people cheering at an old tournament. At first, she thinks it’s a men’s event. Then, as the players file out, she realizes the athletes are women. “Why didn’t I know about this?” Chastain asks in consternation. “It makes me very happy, and quite infuriated.”

That’s a neat encapsulation of the effects of watching “Copa 71” (in theaters and on demand), directed by Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine. The film tells the story of the all-but-forgotten 1971 Women’s World Cup, held in Mexico City and Guadalajara, which was recorded beautifully on film that went unseen for half a century.

The tournament was actually the second such event organized by the Federation of Independent European Female Football; the first was held a year earlier, in Italy. But those details matter less than the context. At the time, soccer (or football, as most of the film’s participants of course call it) was still considered a sport for men, and women who played it were subject to a rich variety of snide and suspicious comments. Aside from the cultural pressures, FIFA, the governing body for what was only men’s soccer at the time, was on a mission to block women from taking part in international football in any organized fashion. In the film’s view, FIFA’s move was as much about retaining power as about the sport itself.

All of this is laid out in “Copa 71,” with the help of a few historians and a number of athletes who played in the international tournaments. Their recollections, juxtaposed with images of a huge arena filled with cheering fans of all ages and genders, make this feel like a sports documentary from an alternate universe — especially because it would take 20 more years for FIFA to finally authorize women’s soccer for international play.

The 1970s tournaments took place in a time of increasing worldwide activism for women’s rights. While the tournaments were obviously part of that movement, the players didn’t see themselves necessarily as activists. They just wanted to play. And this confounded observers, often men, who couldn’t conceive of women just wanting to do something regardless of men’s involvement or opinions.

This comes out in the film when the 1971 veterans offer a series of reflections on what it meant to be there, often with a sense of nonchalant practicality. As one athlete, Birte Kjems of Denmark, remarks, “We didn’t play football because we want to act like the men. I played football because I like to play football.”

“Copa 71” is engrossing, but it struck me that like another documentary about a forgotten moment in history — the Oscar-winning “Summer of Soul” (2021) — this movie reveals the power of recording history for future generations. Without the footage from the 1971 tournament, we wouldn’t have this movie. Giving people a way to see history, not just hear about it, underlines both how exciting it was at the time and also how strange and telling it is when we only learn about it five decades later. Cameras may seem ubiquitous today, but one wonders what kind of half-hidden gems will alter our sense of history in the future.

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