Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Copa ’71’ Sheds Light On An Unjustly Forgotten Story

Directors: James Erskine, Rachel Ramsay
Writers: James Erskine, Victoria Gregory, Rachel Ramsay
Stars: Elvira Aracen, Brandi Chastain, Birte Kjerns

Synopsis: Told by the pioneering women who participated, this is the extraordinary story of the 1971 Women’s Soccer World Cup, a tournament witnessed by record crowds that has been written out of sporting history – until now.

There are certain moments in the history of sports that are unjustly forgotten or ignored for various reasons. Past ignorance, particularly towards women, has stymied progress which could have grown sports much earlier than when it began growing with the inclusion of women. However, time becomes friendly to these moments and are unearthed for the good, as with Copa ‘71 from directors Rachel Ramsey and James Erskine. It is one event that many soccer fans would not have been aware of very much until seeing this inspiring documentary. 

The opening of Copa ‘71 starts with Brandi Chastain, when former player (and hero) from the USA Women’s World Cup squad of 1999, is given a tablet with archive footage of an event buried in history. She says the first Women’s World Cup was in 1991 (officially, yes), but Chastain has no clue until she watches what is playing in front of her about the women playing soccer in front of a crowd of 100,000 people in Mexico City. It is something she has never heard of because it remains an unofficial, unrecognized event in FIFA’s history books. It was the Women’s World Cup of 1971, which featured six teams, but due to the sexist politics of the time regarding women’s soccer, it was disregarded and mocked. 

Members of the six squads – Italy, France, Denmark, England, Mexico, and Argentina – are interviewed for what is their first time telling their story in over 50 years. Driving back in time, the living testimony of these players, mixed with surviving artifacts of what looked like a successful exhibition, puts into perspective the backwards notions that nations felt about women in a “male” sport. As noted in the film, several countries banned professional women’s soccer until 1970, and some countries even made it illegal. A major reason was women’s health: playing such physical sports would damage a woman’s reproductive system. A lot of the rules back then were countries controlling women’s bodies. 

Within this frustration is an overall entertaining film about a sisterhood in a time of change for women in general. Seeing the smiles on the participants’ faces during the competition and how even today they think fondly of the period, working together and playing efficiently in front of surprisingly massive crowds. While it doesn’t take a deeper dive as it could have with the system sexism of the time, it still feels like a crowd pleaser with some amazing memorabilia put out along with the filmed games. All of it just undermines the early perception of women’s sports, yet the idea was still undermined by the powers that be with total vindictiveness. 

Today, of course, it is a quickly growing sport to see professional women’s soccer and the World Cup that has become more popular since its formal start in 1991, but the reality is that it could’ve been already bigger. The infuriating thing audiences learn from this documentary was that the old traditions blocked progress for years, halting these surviving players from laying the groundwork for generations that missed out on a career. Decades delayed, Ramsey and Erskine finally gave the rightful glory to these women whose existence was denied for so long.

Grade: A-

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