Women’s World Cup 1971 • the miracle of Mexico

«En poco tiempo, la selección femenil había logrado muchas cosas, aunque fuera amateur. ¿Qué hubiera pasado si nos hubieran ayudado a crecer?»
– Alicia Vargas​

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Half a century has passed since Italy held the first Women’s World Cup in 1970, won by Denmark. The next year, the Federation of Independent European Women’s Football took the tournament to Mexico.

What followed was an incredible event, one of the biggest in women’s sport history. It emerged without warning, and still boggles the mind today. But what was this World Cup? Its legacy, as a hidden history, remains undecided.

The start of an era?
The end of an era?
The big time?
‘A distant dream’?
El Partido del Siglo?
‘Too commercial’?
(…..said Fifa!)

Maybe it was none of those, maybe it was all of them.

Qualifying

France v Netherlands, April 1971

“We were playing at the highest level and it’s always an honour to represent your country. It’s a privilege and you have to be aware of that and make the most of it. You don’t always realise straight away but being able to experience that is a wonderful opportunity. There’s nothing better than an international match.”
– Marie-Louise Butzig

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“I don’t think we knew what to expect. We had only played in the small qualifying tournament in Sicily, which was played on the park-type pitches we were used to.”
– Chris Lockwood​

The women’s World Cup finals were advertised and sponsored as a major tournament, after Mexico also successfully hosted the 1970 men’s Mundial. This equivalency included having the main women’s matches in one of the world’s largest stadiums, the Estadio Azteca, where a Mexico men’s game held 119,853 fans in 1968.

The host team opened the women’s championship on 15 August. Their opponents Argentina qualified by beating the experienced Costa Rica.

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Group 1

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“I have beautiful memories of the World Cup. Seeing so many girls from all over the world playing football moved me because that didn’t happen in Argentina … Going out onto the pitch and seeing that huge stadium packed was exciting. After my first goal people started singing for Argentina and my legs shook.”
– Elba Selva​

Selva scored not 1 goal, but 4 as Argentina beat England, 4-1, the first Argentinian win in a Women’s World Cup. The match date, 21 August, has been named the annual Day of Women Footballers since 2018.

Elba Selva: Dia de la futbolista – 21 de Agosto
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With two wins, Mexico topped the group:

Mexico 3 – 1 Argentina
Rubio 21′, 54′, Hernandez 30′ / Cardoso 34′
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Group 2

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These games were staged in Guadalajara, at the Jalisco stadium.

Both the champions and the bronze-medallists were in this group. Italy eventually won in the 3rd-place playoff, 4-0 against Argentina with a hat-trick by Elisabetta Vignotto. This was her first tournament in the 20-year career of the country’s top goalscorer.

Semi-finals

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Mexico and Italy were rivals from their Women’s World Cup semi-final of 1970, which ended in a fight over the match ball! But Mexico’s top scorer from a year earlier was not in the initial XI in 1971:

“‘La Pelé’ Vargas started the tournament on the bench. Although the Mexicans won the match 3-1, the press claimed that the coach, Víctor Meléndez, had not lined up the best player on the team. ‘It was strategic’, he replied.
‘But I knew he was not so convinced. I didn’t enter until the second game, against England, and I made the 4 assists. And then, in the semifinals, we got revenge against the Italians. Again there was a brawl, even a linesman ended up with a black eye. The Italians were tough.’
– Alicia Vargas​

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Final

Mexico v Denmark
Mexico City, 5 Sep 1971

The colossal crowd size is somewhat more famous than the match, as around 110,000 fans visibly filled the giant Azteca for an anticipated home victory, the tournament’s second attendance to be reported in six figures (the Game of the “Century”, see).

On the field, each team had a gifted teenage striker, Mexico’s Vargas and Denmark’s Susanne Augustesen – the latter scored a hat-trick, and that gave a Danish team a second women’s world championship.

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In a now familiar disagreement, the Mexican team demanded more money to participate in the final. That caused chaos and a media frenzy in the week of the game, but they weren’t joined by Denmark:

‘The Mexicans must be content with our sympathy, but we will not break the agreement we have long ago made with the organizers.’ … This did not prevent the Danish captain [Lis Pedersen] from expressing that she now believed Martini could have shared out the profits, as it was clear that the tournament would be an audience hit. ‘I have saved 2,000 kroner together to be able to participate, and when we return home on Tuesday, every penny is spent…’”​

Mexico 0 – 3 Denmark(Augustesen 26′, 52′, 62′)
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England 1972?

The English team were badly treated by the WFA on returning home. After the FA’s 50-year ban on women’s teams, the squad had not named themselves England but ‘British Independents’, not using the three lions. But the new women’s association, in an ultimate irony, briefly banned team members for playing in a tournament that it opposed. Another Women’s World Cup in England, sponsored by Geoff Hurst, Alf Ramsey and others, was also vetoed by the WFA.

Across the North Sea, the champions Denmark had a similar problem, as Birte Kjems recounted: “We had a tournament all over the country but now [with the DBU] we had to start from level zero with small local teams. We were winning matches 9-0 so it was very boring, especially for me as a goalkeeper. And at the national team we were no longer allowed to play in unofficial tournaments, only against nations whose women’s team had official status. So for years we could only really play against Nordic teams. I and other players lost some of our best football years because men insisted on doing things their way and weren’t quick enough about it. So I think, even now, it is very important for women to stand up and do things for themselves. Don’t wait for men to do it for you.”

And the finalists of 1971 talked about their experiences, Mexico’s forgotten team:
La Tri Olvidada (Selección Mexicana Femenil 1971), Alicia Vargas, Bertha Orduña, Irma Chávez Barrera & Martha Coronado
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