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‘Copa 71’ Review: A Little-Known Women’s Soccer Milestone Gets a Captivating Closer Look

The new documentary Copa 71 begins with co-director Rachel Ramsay talking with soccer legend Brandi Chastain about the first Women’s World Cup.

“Which was when?” Ramsay asks.

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“1991,” Chastain says with confidence. She was, after all, there.

Following recent documentary convention, Ramsay hands Chastain an iPad and presses play. Chastain sees grainy footage of a packed stadium.

“It’s a men’s football match?” Chastain asks. Players come out on the pitch. They’re women.

“What?” Chastain says with a smile. Incredulous, she asks Ramsay what year the footage was from. It’s 1971.

Chastain ponders, “Why didn’t I know about this? It makes me very happy and quite infuriated, to be honest with you.”

It’s a great moment. It’s also a contrived moment, one of the few in Ramsay and James Erskine’s terrifically satisfying documentary, which thrives not on “Gotcha!” surprises or affected reenactments, but on a wonderful simplicity. Copa 71 has the right footage and the right interview subjects and the result is a documentary that earns its emotional high points.

For those who, like Chastain (and executive producer Alex Morgan, who has a similar loss-for-words moment later), aren’t aware of the 1971 Women’s World Cup, the tournament was organized by Federation of Independent European Female Football and took place in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Crowds filled the cities’ biggest stadiums, watching six countries — Denmark, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, France and England — compete. The final reportedly drew 110,000 spectators.

So why has this event vanished from the historical record?

“Why? Because all the players on the pitch were women,” says executive producer Serena Williams in brief narration.

Copa 71 is driven by extensive interviews from many of the star players from all six squads, who start by recounting their own experience and inexperience with the game. In some of their countries there was a social stigma attached to women playing soccer. In others, all-female leagues were explicitly forbidden.

The stories are tinged with sadness, but they’re also beautiful and inspiring examples of the lengths people will go to in order to do something they love. England’s Carol Wilson, 19 at the time of the World Cup, had enlisted in the air force in part to play in coed leagues with other recruits. Mexico’s Elvira Aracen recalls playing on fields that were all hard dirt, while the men played on grass. Italy’s Elena Schiavo remembers getting in fights with the boys when she tried to play, getting sent away to sewing school and quitting.

The women, sometimes filmed as individuals and even more charmingly in pairs, feel a pride in the barriers they broke to play, but the joy they express in flashing back to when they first learned that the World Cup was happening is a radiant thing. Their memories are crisp and vivid — edited with playful period needle drops and cross-cutting flair — encompassing all aspects of their time in Mexico. The love they felt from the crowds, the immediate and intense rivalries they developed with other players, the experience of being swarmed by the Mexican media — these anecdotes come rushing back, and Ramsay and Erskine are there to collect the gold.

Of near-equal value is the footage from the World Cup, some of it not seen anywhere for 50 years. The games were televised in full color and it’s astonishing how technically adept the coverage was, accentuating soccer action that was as athletic, aggressive and graceful as anything exhibited in this summer’s tournament down under. The featured talking heads are among the biggest heroes from those games, and their eyes still light up discussing every goal, every penalty, every swing of momentum. The ability to alternate between these women today, most in their 60s and 70s, and the stars they used to be is a recipe for instant poignance. I got teary at several points because the sense that these are stories that have been waiting for an outlet for decades is so very palpable.

Mixed in with the stories of triumph are many tales of accompanying sexism. Mostly the women laugh about getting stylists or doing photo shoots at swimming pools, as the promotion leaned into the event’s sex appeal. They’re less generous when it comes to talking about their frustration at what they were paid — “nothing” — and the way FIFA marginalized their contribution to soccer history.

In this respect, Copa 71 is limited by its inability to get any institutional voices into the documentary, leaving historian David Goldblatt to fill in those FIFA-centric gaps in a dry and bloodless way that’s at odds with the vitality of the players.

Then there’s the other elephant in the room: It’s hard to dispute that while sexism might be the primary factor in Morgan and Chastain knowing nothing about this event, the absence of American participation must have played a role as well. In truth, there’s no reason why U.S. soccer needed to be mentioned in Copa 71 at all. But once the directors brought Morgan and Chastain into the film, the documentary could have used a two-minute aside to explain what was or wasn’t happening here.

These are problems that exist only around the fringes of a film that is, at its center, a sturdy and focused thing. Like so many of my favorite documentaries in general and sports documentaries specifically, Copa 71 exposes an obscured chapter in history and thrusts its heroes into a well-deserved spotlight.

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