Copa 71 - The Greatest Sporting Story You've Never Heard

In 2023, New Zealand and Australia welcomed the FIFA Women’s World Cup to our shores, shattering the competition’s total attendance record by over 500,000 in the process. Held at a sold out Stadium Australia, the final eclipsed over 75,000 fans in the stands, an enormous turnout, although this is still far from the biggest in the competition’s history. 


Officially, that record is held by the final of the USA 1999 world cup, hosted at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in front of around 90,000 fans. This too was an incredible turnout, especially given the era, but even this pales before the most attended women’s sporting event of all time. With a whopping 110,000 fans packed into the stands of the Azteca Stadium, this figure was also the result of a women’s world cup final, however this one was held in 1971, 20 years before the first FIFA sanctioned Women’s World Cup in 1991.  


Despite being such a resounding success in terms of turnout, the tournament was viewed as highly controversial at the time, a feature which contributed to it being all but erased from the history books. Copa 71 is a documentary film which tells the story of this competition, unpacking the stories of the incredible women who participated in it. But if you’ve never heard of this story before, don’t worry, neither had Copa 71 directors Rachel Ramsay & James Erskine, until their producer, Victoria Gregory, told them about it. 


“Her husband had been listening to the radio when one of the England players was on air and was doing a call out to try and track down the team-mates she hadn’t seen for 47 years… She couldn’t believe the story and neither could we. But when we began digging we realised how extraordinary it was… and how untold – it took us many months to track down footage and the players, but pretty much from the get go we knew it was a story that needed to be told.” 


Attitudes towards women’s sport are changing rapidly but, as the film reminds you throughout, over 50 years ago  – during the height of the women’s liberation movement  –  things were very different. Although it is almost certainly not the only women’s event of its kind to be silenced in such a way, it is likely the biggest by some margin, making it the perfect subject for such a film.


“112,000 people at the final makes it the biggest ever crowd to this day at a women’s sporting event. The international nature of it and the volume of the participants means the scale is pretty unique – but we also know the injustices that have been perpetrated are just as meaningful for smaller events, or more individual achievements – we’ve no doubt there is a wealth of stories to be uncovered.”

Ramsay and Erskine have worked on many sports documentary projects together in the past, but uncovering footage for this one of a kind event from such a different age of media proved a unique challenge for the pair. 


“It’s hard to know what was a cover up, what was negligence and what was a symptom of the times. In the internet age where we are used to having footage of all events all the time, it’s hard to remember that back in the day many things were only shown once on analogue television, that newspapers were the next day’s chip papers. So there were a number of factors lined up against us… it’s thanks to a large team working in many different countries that we were able to delve deep into both commercial collections and private collections to piece the story together.”


The movie naturally maintains a key focus on heavy issues involving women’s empowerment and disempowerment. But its direction and pacing help to maintain a lighthearted appeal throughout and prevent this complex subject matter from weighing down the overall tone of the film. 


“We wanted to tell a story that was about hearts, not minds, a story that took the audience on an emotional journey and cleaved close to the lived experiences, the highs and lows of the very real women who lived this story. We also wanted to show that what united these women was greater than what divided them.”


“That threw up challenges in the edit – most sports stories are set up in a way where you root for one team or another, we wanted our story to unfold in a way that you wanted everyone to win. By building a narrative where the political dimension was revealed by the contributors passing the baton one to another, we were able to outline the issues of disempowerment and injustice by showing them as a collective and keeping a jaunty pace to the film.”

Despite working in the past with some of the world’s biggest sporting names, including the likes of Jürgen Klopp and Sachin Tendulkar, Ramsay and Erskine had a completely different experience working with the ‘stars’ of the 1971 world cup. 


“I’d say we’re lucky to have worked with Tendulkar and Klopp in some depth that allowed us to penetrate the mask and also the various handlers and agents to get to the real men. But for sure the women who speak in this tale have lived very different lives, they speak as the “have nots” rather than the “haves”, they speak from the experience of disappointment not success. It was brilliant the warmth they shared in telling their stories, often from a point of view of pain. Their undimmed passion for the games they played even 50 years on, shows just how much this meant to each of these remarkable athletes. Giving them back their story feels like a wonderful achievement.”


Copa 71 released in NZ theatres last month and is now showing in cinemas across the country, but only for a limited season. Head along to your nearest screening to learn even more about the greatest sporting story you’ve never heard of.  


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