Women in Sport - History

Bliss Ross discusses women’s sporting event history.

Copa 71: Unveiling the Most-Attended Women’s Sporting Event in History 

In this article, we delve into the compelling narrative of the documentary ‘Copa 71,’ shedding light on a piece of sporting history that has long remained obscured.  

In this article, undergraduate student and UoM Sport colleague Bliss Ross delves into the compelling narrative of the documentary ‘Copa 71,’ shedding light on a piece of sporting history that has long remained obscured.  

It’s 1971 and a crowd of 110,000 spectators are gathered inside Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium to watch the Copa 1971 Women’s World Cup. Yes, you read that right, women’s. 

Never heard of it before? Neither had I. We aren’t supposed to have heard of it. Now let me explain why. 

Manchester’s independent cinema, HOME, is currently screening Copa 71, a captivating sports documentary that combines archival footage and interviews with former players to finally unveil the suppressed history of the most attended women’s sporting event to date. 

Despite the Football Association’s ban on women’s football having been repealed 50 years prior, FIFA persisted in its efforts to impede Copa 71 from going ahead. They threatened the Mexican Football Federation with fines and bans if they allowed games to be played in the grounds they controlled. What FIFA did not anticipate was that the Mexican Television company, Televisa, would seize this tournament as a business opportunity, capitalising on what they perceived as the union of men’s two favourite things: football and women.  

Consequently, this forced the matches to be played in the stadiums owned by Televisa -the Azteca and the Jalisco- which also happened to be the largest venues in the country. Whilst the tournament was often marketed as a sexist joke to appeal to male interests, it nonetheless attracted unprecedented attention to the women’s game. 

For three weeks, female players from six nations, including England, realised their dreams by playing football in front of thousands of Mexican spectators, only to return home as if it had never happened. One of the ‘lost Lionesses’, Chris Lockwood, recounts how following the tournament, the players had ‘never ever mentioned it to anyone’, continuing, ‘I think it’s because we felt ashamed and that we’d done something wrong’. With the English players and management involved in Copa 71 being met with yet another ban, it seemed that things were going backwards, causing many women to quit the sport for good.  

Fast-forward to today, female footballers are seen as strong role models and financial assets. In 2022, the Lionesses made history by winning UEFA Euros in front of 87,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium, marking a turning point in the exponential growth of the women’s game. Records continue to be broken, with Arsenal Women having sold out the Emirates Stadium for back-to-back Women’s Super League fixtures for the first time ever this season.  

The increased popularity of the women’s game is also evident within grassroots clubs and organised university sport. Head Coach of the University of Manchester Women’s Football Teams, Rob McKay, has recognised this first-hand, commenting, ‘when I joined the University 5 years ago, we’d have 40-50 female students trial each year, whereas now it is 200+’.  

In light of International Women’s Day this month, it is crucial to express gratitude for those who have paved the way for women to actively engage in sport and pursue careers in the field. To honour the legacy of the women in Copa 71, we must maintain the current momentum within the women’s game, ensuring that it continues to beat all opposition.