As Leah Caleb and her England teammates stepped off the plane that had taken them to Mexico City, they were greeted by huge crowds at a packed airport. Arc lights illuminated the night sky. “One of the other players turned to me and said: ‘There must be someone special here,’” Caleb remembers. “It was us.”
The year was 1971 and the England team were about to take part in the unofficial women’s World Cup. The tournament – organised by the Fédération Internationale Européenne de Football Féminine (FIEFF) – was met with overwhelming apathy back in England. But in Mexico it was a popular sensation, its canny manipulation of merchandising and sponsorship – and its ability to tap into the host nation’s passion for football – setting the template for the multi-million pound extravaganza that will be the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
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In some ways, it’s remarkable that the 1971 tournament took place at all. Having shown little interest in women’s football – and fearful that the game might fall “into the hands of promoters” – Fifa, world football’s governing body, prohibited the Mexican Football Federation from helping to organise the women’s tournament. In turn, the federation threatened to fine any organisation that allowed either their stadia or training facilities to be used.
But Fifa’s attempts to strangle the tournament at birth failed – chiefly because, over the previous few years, international women’s football had seen a surge in popular interest. In 1970, 50,000 fans had converged on Turin’s Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino stadium to watch Denmark beat Italy 2-0 in the final of a non-sanctioned tournament called the Martini Rosso Cup. That same year, Mexico had hosted Italy in a series of friendlies – the first watched by 60,000 spectators and broadcast on the national TV company Canal 2.
These friendlies may have hinted at the massive public appetite in Mexico for women’s football, but FIEFF weren’t taking the World Cup’s success for granted. And, in a bid to generate even greater anticipation in a country that the previous year had hosted a spectacularly successful men’s World Cup, the organisers commercialised the tournament in exactly the same way that the men’s tournaments had. They created a mascot, Xochitl (which, in the Mexican language Nahuatl, means ‘flower’), a young girl dressed in a Mexico kit with a football under her arm. Xochitl gave the tournament a visual focal point and appeared on a range of merchandising, including magazines and programmes, dolls, t-shirts, badges and bags. Soon, a posse of high-profile corporations were in on the act, the likes of Carta Blanca beer, Nikolai Vodka, the slimming drink Dietafiel and Lagg’s tea joining Martini & Rossi as official sponsors.
Although FIEFF clearly respected the players’ on-pitch abilities, they weren’t afraid of exploiting their gender to promote the tournament. Xochitl wore pigtails and had an ‘hour-glass’ figure, while the goal posts were painted pink and white. In a New York Times article prior to the tournament, Jaime de Haro, the head of the organising committee, declared: “We’re really going to stress the feminine angle. It’s natural, the combination of the two passions of most men around the world: soccer and women.”
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Looking back from the 21st century, these words may appear crass, but there’s little doubt that the organisers’ marketing strategy worked in whipping up anticipation – as the England team discovered when they touched down in Mexico. No sooner had they left the airport than they were in demand from the local media – a far cry from the complete lack of interest in women’s football back home.
“There were a few snippets in the British press but it was a jokey type of thing,” remembers England winger Gill Sayell, who was just 14 when the tournament began. “But in Mexico we were chaperoned everywhere, taken to functions and we went on TV. For a schoolgirl, to be plucked into that limelight was quite surreal.”
The media interest continued throughout the team’s month in Mexico. The national newspapers Excélsior and El Heraldo de México both produced regular match reports and updates on the various teams’ off-pitch activities. The England squad also had numerous social engagements to fulfil, including a cocktail reception at the British ambassador’s residency.
“You could feel in the weeks leading up to the games that something special was about to happen,” recalls right winger Leah Caleb, who, at 13, was even younger than Gill Sayell.
“Everywhere we went there would be people coming up to us for our autographs. We had police escorts going to matches. Once, our coach was stopped on the highway because they all wanted to shake our hands through the window and give us things.”
A passionate advocate
Alongside Mexico, Argentina, Denmark, France and Italy, England were one of six teams to contest the 1971 World Cup. That they were there at all was largely down to the pioneering work of a coach called Harry Batt. In 1969 Batt, supported by his wife June, had formed Chiltern Valley Ladies FC and quickly affiliated the team to FIEFF. Batt, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and was fluent in several languages, was a passionate advocate of the women’s game. “In the future there will be full-time professional ladies’ teams in this country,” he declared.
But in 1970s England, that brave new world appeared a distant dream. The 1971 World Cup took place at a time when women’s football was treated with contempt and ridicule. That ridicule was especially conspicuous in the national press: when England played Scotland in 1973 (in what was by then an ‘official’ game), one prominent Sunday Times journalist wrote: “It’s like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not well done but it’s surprising to see it done at all.”
That attitude filtered down to school football. Neither Caleb nor Sayell were allowed to play for their school teams. The head teacher of Caleb’s school asked the local authority to agree to allow her to play for the boys’ team. It said no.
Football “wasn’t the chosen sport for girls but you just got on with it”, remembers Caleb, who played under Batt for Chiltern Valley Ladies. “I just started playing football in the playground at my primary school because the boys were kicking a ball and the girls joined in. You soon developed a passion for the game because you could play. Those were the days of George Best, Denis Law and Pele – it was an exciting time for men’s football and of course England hadn’t long won the World Cup, so there was lots of inspiration.”
Aged nine, Sayell had joined a boys’ team (pretending to be a boy – her teammates called her ‘Billy’) but when other teams realised she was a girl they refused to play against her – purely because she was better than them. And when playing for Thame ladies, she recalled: “We’d get a few people watching. It was mocked a little bit and it wasn’t an easy ride.”
While some of England’s older players had to choose between playing in the World Cup and their jobs, Caleb and Sayell encountered few problems, as the tournament took place during the school holidays. “I’d never been on a plane before,” says Sayell. “My dad had to rush out and get me a passport.”
A few weeks later, Sayell and her England teammates played group rivals Argentina and Mexico, with the latter played in front of 90,000 people at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, which had hosted the men’s World Cup final the previous year. “I remember coming up the steps from the changing room, which was below the pitch, and the noise from the crowd was deafening,” says Sayell.
Unfortunately, in both games the England players failed to do themselves justice, losing their first match 4-1 and the second 4-0. Against Argentina, their problems were compounded when their striker Janice Barton was controversially sent off for stepping off the pitch to remove her shin pads. Barton had already scored in the game and would add two to her tally in the team’s 3-2 defeat to France in the 5th/6th play-off.
The Mexicans, responsible for England’s second defeat, would go on to reach the final, where they succumbed to Denmark 3-0. Contemporary estimates suggest the attendance figure for the final at the Azteca Stadium was 110,000, something that surviving footage supports. However, the game has effectively been wiped from history: in the record books, it is the 90,185 that watched the 1999 final (in what was the third Women’s World Cup organised by Fifa) that is hailed as the biggest ever crowd for a women’s match.
While the Danes celebrated their victory, the England players returned home to a country that had barely noticed they’d gone. When Caleb and Sayell returned to their schools after the tournament, no mention of it was made in assemblies.
“From the high of Mexico, it was just back to normal,” says Sayell. “I found myself thinking, ‘did that actually happen?’ which is a shame. It would have been great if the women’s game had gone on from there but it just sort of went flat.” Rubbing salt into the wounds was the fact that the players all received short playing bans from the English governing bodies for taking part in an unofficial competition, while Harry Batt was banned for life for “bringing the game into disrepute”. “I was very disappointed,” says Sayell. “You go from representing your country and then you can’t even play for your home team.”
“Whether the FA or WFA [Women’s Football Association] agreed or didn’t, the fact is that a team went there and represented England,” adds Caleb. “It happened, it’s real. People actually wanted to watch women’s football. They can’t take that away and I don’t know why you’d want to.”.
Roger Domeneghetti is a senior lecturer in journalism at Northumbria University. He is the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media (Ockley Books, 2017)
The BBC will be covering every game in the 2019 Women’s World Cup across TV, radio and online, starting on 7 June
Timeline: the highs and lows of women’s football in the UK
1881 THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL
Teams from Scotland and England meet at Hibernian’s Easter Road ground in Edinburgh. Scotland run out 3-0 winners in front of a crowd of around 2,000. It is the first recorded women’s football international.
1895 NORTH HAMMERS SOUTH
Nettie Honeyball forms the British Ladies’ Football Club. ‘The North’ beats ‘The South’ 7-1 before a crowd of 10,000 in Crouch End. Press coverage chiefly focuses on the women’s looks and attire.
1920 WAR DIVIDEND
Following a surge in interest in women’s football during the First World War (when many male players were away at the front), the Dick, Kerr Ladies factory team play St Helen’s Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day in front of a crowd of 55,000.
1921 THE PATRIARCHY BITES BACK
The success of women’s football causes resentment among the male football establishment. Both the Football Association (FA) and Scottish FA ban affiliated clubs from letting women’s teams use their grounds.
1971 HALF-HEARTED SUPPORT
The ban is lifted but little changes. In England, the Women’s Football Association, formed in 1969, does not become affiliated to the FA until 1983. The FA allocates few resources to the women’s game which continues on an amateur basis.
1972 BREAKTHROUGH GAME
Greenock’s Ravenscraig Stadium plays host to a match between England and Scotland, the first official international for either country. England come from behind to win 3-2, with Pat Davies scoring the winner.
1984 ON TOP OF THE WORLD
England finish runners up to Sweden in the two-legged final of the inaugural Uefa Women’s Euros. The English media pay virtually no attention. The following year England win the Mundialito, an unofficial forerunner to the World Cup.
1989 MATCHES FOR THE MASSES
Channel 4 broadcasts coverage of the WFA Cup Final and nearly 3 million tune in to watch Leasowe Pacific (now Everton) beat Friends of Fulham 3-2 at Old Trafford. Coverage over the next few years regularly pulls in around 2.5 million viewers.
1998 CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE
Hope Powell is appointed the first full-time coach of the England women’s team. Twenty Centres of Excellence for girls are established, and sponsorship is gained for both the women’s FA Cup and Premier League.
2015 A LANDMARK FOR THE LIONESSES
England’s Lionesses defeat Germany in the third-place play off of the official World Cup. It’s the best finish by a senior England team since the men’s team won the 1966 World Cup.
2019 BRAVE NEW WORLD
Barclays agree a three-year deal worth more than £10m to sponsor the Women’s Super League. In June and July, 24 teams – including England and Scotland – will contest the Fifa Women’s World Cup, staged in France.
The BBC will be covering every game in the 2019 Women’s World Cup across TV, radio and online.