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AIf you ask someone when the first Women’s World Cup was held, you’ll probably get several answers. Was it the unofficial 1970 Coppa del Mondo in Italy, or the 1991 competition in China that FIFA just called the “World Cup,” or was it the 1995 World Cup in Sweden when the quotation marks were finally dropped?

The incredibly entertaining Storyville film Copa 71: The Lost Lionesses – which hit theaters in March – makes an alternative suggestion. It makes a compelling case for another unofficial World Cup, held in Mexico in 1971, shortly after bans on women’s soccer were lifted in several countries. Here, women’s teams competed on the world stage in televised matches. The games drew huge crowds and dared – cruelly and prematurely – to suggest that women’s soccer had finally arrived after decades underground.

This vivid documentary tells the story of the tournament that FIFA refused to recognize as a World Cup and tried to stop by banning Mexican clubs from playing matches in their stadiums. This meant that the matches had to be moved to the largest stadiums in the country, which were controlled not by clubs but by media conglomerates. These companies were forced to fill tens of thousands of extra seats and tried to do so by every means at their disposal, featuring the teams in newspapers, magazines and on television. It worked: 110,000 spectators attended the final. The material gathered here is astonishing.

The Mexico-Italy game turns into a brawl. Photo: Hemeroteca/New Black Films/OEM Colour Artists/Marina Amaral

The tournament is a narrative gift. It allows history to play out like a traditional sports documentary – as the games progress and the players who took part look back on their participation. It is gripping, even today; while it doesn’t film every jaw-dropping twist, there is enough to get the gist. More than 50 years later, people still talk about biased referees, decisions that could have changed the game, lack of preparation and inferiority complexes. (“Speak for yourself, I didn’t have an inferiority complex,” says one of the Mexican players in response to a former teammate.) I had no idea who had won, so I watched as if the games were happening live.

The drama inside and outside of football is spectacular. One player breaks her foot and has to be carried off the pitch by her teammates. Another match is stopped with 10 minutes to go because of chaos caused by a series of questionable refereeing decisions, including an astonishing but disallowed goal. I didn’t expect the words “then came the kicking and punching” to appear in this documentary.

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I also didn’t expect a labor dispute to erupt if one of the teams refused to play after learning they wouldn’t be paid, even though the organizers make a lot of money through ticket sales and sponsorship deals. It’s hard not to think about the U.S. national team settling its long-running pay dispute with its governing body in 2022.

As always, there’s a lot more to it than just sport. The early 70s were a time of social upheaval, with second wave feminism and the women’s movement breaking into the mainstream. Not that you’d know that from most of the archive footage here, which gives a glimpse of what female footballers had to endure.

The players are treated as figures of fun. They are treated Carry On-style, with many references to their legs and the shortness of their shorts. A Mexican official tells the New York Times that the players are “not muscle monsters, but generally pretty girls.” In an English news report, a journalist asks a woman, “What is a nice girl like you doing playing soccer?” In France, a journalist jokingly sets up a women’s soccer team; we see a man on television claiming that women playing soccer “are a curiosity, both erotic and comic.”

But there is a sense that a different spirit emerged during the tournament. These players, used to being ignored or ridiculed, became stars. Tragically, that spirit was short-lived. Unsettled by the tournament’s success, FIFA clamped down. The English players, finally being taken seriously, returned home without any applause. Several players here speak of how dejected they were – that for 50 years they could not even talk to their team-mates about their enormous achievements.

This documentary does their story justice, albeit belatedly, and with style. It’s a rollicking tale of an underdog. As one of the Italian players puts it: “It was a wild adventure.”

Copa 71: The Lost Lionesses was broadcast on BBC Four and is available on BBC iPlayer.

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