Womens World Cup Final in 1971 with 110.000 (!) paying fans.
Womens World Cup Final in 1971 with 110.000 (!) paying fans.

“We played for 95.000 people but came home to a ban”

Reclaiming Herstory: The Untold Triumphs of Past Women Footballers Unearthed Despite FIFA’s Neglect

Gijsbert Oonk
Gijsbert Oonk Erasmus University Rotterdam

Today FIFA and many National Football federations, including the English FA and the Dutch KNVB highlight how they encourage young girls and women to play football. On the official FIFA website we find quotes like “FIFA and Optus join forces to empower women’s sport and inspire the next generation.”

Well, they may be empowering women’s football now, but what we do not find on their websites is how they discouraged, prevented, and even banned women’s football one generation ago. Despite the hostile attitude of FIFA and indeed a large part of society, women did play the beautiful game and with much more success than is generally acknowledged.

Women’s football and the first bans in the 1920’s 

Women’s football has a long tradition, going back to the 19th century. [See here on this website] It gained huge popularity in the 1910s and 1920s, especially during and just after World War I. During the war women had taken over the place of men in  factories and taken part in the war-economies, while the young men were fighting at the front. In addition to their labour, they started to play football and organized women’s matches to raise money for the war-efforts, as well as for charities. These matches turned out to be very successful. More often than not, there were crowds of over 40.000 and 50.000 paying visitors. Nevertheless, after the 1921 match in Goodison Park (53.000 spectators) the FA voted to ban women’s football at its grounds. It was felt that the game was ‘quite unsuitable for females’ and should not be encouraged. Complaints had also been made as to the conditions under which some of the matches had been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects, like expenses. English but also  Dutch  women could not play in clubs affiliated with their National Football Association until 1971, and Scottish women until 1974.  In Brazil between 1941 and 1979 there was a ban on female footballers because kicking a ball was considered to be ‘incompatible with their nature’. This left a great mark on the sport. Even after the formal bans were lifted in almost all countries, prejudice and stereotypes remain until this day. As a result, football federations around the world continue to provide greater support to men than to women, and powerful campaigns are needed to reframe this negative image. 

The emergence of commercially successful  women’s tournaments

It is safe to conclude that the potential for women’s football was already clear in the 1920s. Despite the ban’s this did not discourage women from playing football. Many continued by organizing their own matches and national and international competitions. In the 1960s The Federation of Independent European Female Football (French: Fédération Internationale Européenne de Football Féminine, also referred to by its acronym FIEFF) was set up as an administrative body for women’s association football in Europe and later globally. The organization was privately funded by the backers of professional Italian women’s clubs.  FIEFF organised Italian-based tournaments in 1969 and 1970 followed by  a World Cup in Mexico in 1971. The tournaments attracted sponsors including Martini & Rossi and were a commercial success.

The forgotten Women’s World Cup in 1971

The 1971 world cup was held in Mexico City and Guadalajara. It featured women’s teams from six countries: Mexico, Argentina, England, Italy, Denmark and France. From the opening match (Mexico-Argentina 15 august; 80.000 visitors) until the final (Mexico -Denmark 110.000 fans) the tournament was a great sportive and commercial success.

YOUTUBE IMAGES HERE and HERE.

Jan Emms was one of the players in the British Independents Ladies football team. This name was given to the ‘English Team’ to get around the FA’s rules. In 2019 she gave an interview at a local newspaper. In which she declared:

The FA and the men in charge of the national game didn’t perceive women as footballers, so they wouldn’t support our plan to compete in the Mexican World Cup. The sponsor, Martini Rossi, paid for us to fly to Sicily to qualify and then they flew the team to Mexico. Most of us hadn’t been abroad before, let alone to a different continent. It was an incredible experience.

If the adulation was a shock, so was the ferocity of their opponents.

The tackling was brutal – remembers Jan –  In the first game, our captain, Carol, and our right winger, Yvonne, both broke their legs.

Jan Emms

Rather than receiving a heroes’ welcome back in England, the team-mates all received a six-month ban from the FA. Later on, several countries lifted bans on women’s football in the 1970s, leading to new teams being established in many countries.

For the love of the game 

On 20th August 2023 the Women’s World Cup Final  is hosted  in Stadium Australia, Sydney for a maximum of 80.000 spectators. This is a good opportunity to  not just celebrate the women’s game for the FIFA efforts, but realize that what they in fact did was to remove themselves as obstacles. Therefore, let’s seize this moment  to celebrate the women that loved the game, long before they were loved back.

Thinking points

Why were women not allowed to play football? 

How did women manage to continue to play despite the institutional obstacles of FIFA, UEFA, FA, KNVB and others?

Do you think that FIFA should include the story of the 1971 World Cup in its FIFA football museum? Why or why not? Why do you think that they are reluctant to do so?

To what extent is the emancipation for women’s suffrage similar to the right to play football?How is it different? 

Find out more

You can read the BBC article about Mexico 1971 here:
https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46149887 

Some moving images of the finale in 1971:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaO_xj_vuD4

Women in football: Why was it banned? What’s it future? A mini documentary
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HtIY6zRaA4

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Womens World Cup Final in 1971 with 110.000 (!) paying fans.
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