Film

'We felt like absolute stars': Behind the 1971 women's football World Cup the world forgot

The Big Issue speaks to Carol Wilson, the captain of the unofficial England women's football team which went to Mexico in 1971

women's football/ team

The unofficial England team of 1971 and their coach, Harry Batt. Image: © New Black Films [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

Carol Wilson’s legs felt like jelly as she walked through the tunnel of Mexico’s largest football stadium. Tens of thousands of people roared and waved as they waited for a game of women’s football. It turned to white noise when she got onto the pitch.

The 19-year-old England captain stood still absorbing it for a moment. It was a scorching August day, and the Azteca Stadium magnified the sun.

This was the 1971 women’s world cup. It is the largest event in women’s sporting history with games reaching more than 100,000 spectators – but it remains unrecognised by football associations and was largely forgotten for 50 years.

Wilson’s team was banned from playing football again.

Critics of the women’s football game said it was too physical – and even violent at times. But Wilson says it was exaggerated by the media. Image: Image: © New Black Films, [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

A new documentary Copa 71, produced by tennis sensations Venus and Serena Williams, tells the extraordinary story of the tournament and its pioneering players.

Wilson, 71, remembers becoming mesmerised by football as a child. She was playing with her dad near St James’s Park stadium in Newcastle, snow up to her wellies, and heard an almighty roar. “What’s that?” she asked. 

Newcastle United had just scored. Her dad jumped up and down pumping his fists in the air, and she copied him. She hoped one day she would watch a game.

“We were extremely poor,” she says, “I say we didn’t have anything, but my mum was a genius. She made all our clothes with any scrap of material she got her hands on. And my dad never stopped encouraging me. As soon as I could walk, he kicked a ball along the passage so I could kick it back.”

When she was old enough, she played football with the boys in her neighbourhood. 

Carol Wilson, who is now 71 and has reunited with her team. Image: New Black Films Ltd. and Dogwoof

“I know this is a bit of a cliche, but did you see the film, Billy Elliot? You know when he said he felt electric? It was like that. I wasn’t in the place I should have been, pushing a pram with a dolly in it, but I was doing what I actually wanted to do. It was euphoric.”

Girls weren’t allowed to play football at school, but she participated in every sport she could. She wanted to study physical education at Loughborough University but felt she was not academic enough.

“I was one of those kids that once you sat me down for an examination, I couldn’t even write my name,” she recalls. “I just froze. I was gutted because I so wanted to go to Loughborough.”

Instead, she joined the RAF as a physical trainer, where she picked up football again. The men laughed when she asked to join but were stunned by her skills.

Through one of those games, she was scouted for England by Harry Batt, who was searching for the best players across the country.

Training wasn’t always smooth. One player lost a finger while wearing a ring in goal, so Batt decided he needed someone in charge while he was away scouting. Wilson was made captain.

She remembers shaking when they were told they were going to Mexico, feeling the weight of responsibility. Wilson became something of a taskmaster. “They’ll tell you how hard I trained them,” she laughs.

The team training up for Mexico. They would have to contend with heat and altitude. Image: © New Black Films, [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

But what they could never prepare for was the reception in Mexico. From the moment they got off the plane, crowds gathered to show their love and support.

“We enjoyed every minute when we were out there,” Wilson says. “Every single minute. We felt like stars. Absolute stars.”

England lost their three games, 4-1 to Argentina, 4-0 to Mexico, and 3-2 to France. But their time in Mexico was joyful, and the Mexican people paid for them to stay for all five weeks of the tournament, including the final between Denmark and Mexico.

The Mexican team lost a campaign to be paid in that final week. They also lost the game 3-0.

Asked whether she was paid, Wilson laughs. “We got an orange at half time,” she says. “I was just so pleased to be playing. It wasn’t an issue at the time.”

The Denmark team took the winning slot, beating the home team 3-0. Image: © New Black Films, [stills source], colour artist Marina Amaral

Issues started when they returned home to England. The Women’s Football Association (WFA) banned the team and Batt was blacklisted – because they did not believe in professionalism in football.

In Wilson’s words, they probably still believed that “women belong in the kitchen.”

Wilson was invited to St James’s Park for a dinner. She brought her dad, brimming with pride. It felt like a dream moment, but then she was mocked on stage by the compere.

“I was ridiculed. I was humiliated. I felt for me dad, because he was so joyous I’d played. He’d been telling everybody. He was so chuffed.”

Wilson did not speak to her team for 50 years, many of them also humiliated by the media and even their own families. They did not meet again until 2019, when they had a tearful reunion. They meet regularly and continue to fight for recognition.

Wilson is proud of herself, her team and the generations of women following in their footsteps.

“I’m elated it got off the ground,” Wilson says. “Since 2018, it’s just progressed. I always say to the girls and new generations coming up to keep pushing, keep working and practise your skills. Don’t ever give up. Just push forward. If we could do it as kids, you can.”

After they left St James’s Park on that humiliating day, her dad turned to her and said: “It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but it will happen.” He was right. It is too little, too late for Wilson and her team, but it has happened. Women’s football is now flying.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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