“How many people do you know who’ve played in the Azteca stadium?” It’s a simple but stark query to which I’m very quickly provided an answer. “There aren’t many are there? And there aren’t many men who’ve played there either, are there? And I mean professional players.” Louise Cross, who posed the question, has played at the Azteca. She was just 16 when she stepped out at the iconic stadium to play for England at the Women’s World Cup. There were 100,000 people watching from the stands when she did. It was August 1971 and for four weeks that summer the women’s game ruled the world. “I’ll never forget it,” Cross said. “I loved it.”

Fifa had effectively washed their hands of the women’s game in 1951 in response to an enquiry from Thomas Cranshaw, a member of the Nicaraguan football federation. Cranshaw had been born in Manchester but moved to Nicaragua in 1917 and had been instrumental in establishing football in the country. On his travels he had become aware that tens of thousands of women were playing football in countries like the US and Costa Rica. He asked the world governing body what they were going to do only to be told that Fifa had no interest in, nor jurisdiction over, women’s football. That intransigence created an organisational vacuum that would, due to the popularity of the women’s game, eventually be filled by someone else. 

In November 1969 the Fédération Internationale Européenne de Football Féminin (Fieff) was formed in an attempt to organise football for women at an international level in Europe. That month Fieff held a four-team tournament in Turin comprising Denmark, England, France and the hosts Italy who beat the Danes 3-1 in the final. The 1960s, which had been characterised by both social and sexual liberation, were a transitional period for women’s sport. Its commercial attraction was becoming apparent to a range of businesses who were in a position to exploit it thanks to their marketing structures and media contacts. Fieff was backed by several of the businesses behind Italian women’s league clubs, key among them the Italian drinks company Martini & Rossi. The company saw an opportunity to promote a product targeted at women by associating their brand with female sport and in 1970 organised another tournament: the Martini Rosso Cup. Eight teams were invited to take part and this time it could claim to be a truly global competition thanks to the presence of Mexico. Despite this, it still lacked official recognition from any of the relevant Italian, European or global football authorities and was effectively a privately organised tournament in which a variety of club sides represented their countries. However, when 50,000 spectators packed into Turin’s Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino to see Denmark (represented by the club side BK Femina) beat Italy 2-0 in the final, it was clear there was an appetite for international women’s football.

Mexico lost to Italy in the semi-finals before going on to beat England in the third-place play off. However, the success of the tournament and the participation of the Mexicans saw the organisers drop the word “Européenne” from their title to become the more global Fédération Internationale de Football Féminin (Fiff). Furthermore, a crucial bond had been formed. The Mexican women’s football federation invited the Italian team over for a series of games in the autumn of 1970. Mexico gained revenge for their semi-final defeat in front of 60,000 fans at the Estadio Azteca in a game that was televised by the national broadcaster. The second match, at Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco, was also televised nationally. The summer saw an explosion in the popularity of the women’s game in the country. Mexican news and sports papers alike began devoting significant serious coverage to the sport and women’s club matches became a regular feature of the TV schedules. The head of the Italian delegation, Marco Rambaudi, who was also a director of Fiff, was so impressed by the facilities and the fans’ enthusiasm for the sport that he declared his support for Mexico to host the next Women’s World Cup. The country had the infrastructure in place. Not only had the men’s World Cup taken place there in 1970, but Mexico City had also hosted the 1968 Olympics. So, when the decision was made at the first Fiff World Congress held at Turin’s Ambassador’s Hotel in December 1970, Mexico was appointed host ahead of bids from Switzerland, Luxembourg and Spain.

Fifa were watching with quiet concern. Through their own lack of interest and action they had, as they disdainfully admitted to Cranshaw, no control over the women’s game and nor did the vast majority of their member associations. In January 1971 an executive committee meeting noted “the growing popularity of football for women” and urged its members to “follow the matter closely”. They still kept the women’s game at arm’s length, arguing they could not organise a women’s World Cup until “this type of football is controlled by national associations”. However, fearful that the game could fall “into the hands of promoters – which could be detrimental to Fifa” they moved to protect their own interests. The following month they sent a directive to the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) prohibiting it from organising the women’s tournament. The Federation subsequently threatened affiliated clubs with a fine of 25,000 pesos if they allowed either their stadiums or training facilities to be used for the tournament.

Undeterred, the organisers where able to get round the stadium ban by using the two privately owned grounds which had hosted the Mexico-Italy games: Estadio Jalisco, in Guadalajara, and Estadio Azteca, in Mexico City. The latter, which was the scene of Brazil’s demolition of Italy in the men’s World Cup final just a year earlier, was owned by Televisa, the parent company of Canal 2. The organisers defiantly announced the dates for the tournament to be held in August 1971 and set about doing exactly what Fifa had feared: commercialising and marketing the competition.

The commercial success of the tournament was in large part due to the fact that the organisers approached it in just the same way they might have approached a men’s tournament; they didn’t assume it would fail because the players were women. Alongside Martini Rosso, sponsorship came from Carta Blanca beer, Nikolai Vodka, the slimming drink Dietafiel and Lagg’s tea. The marketing campaign was based around the mascot Xóchitl (a relatively common name in Mexico that means ‘flower’ in Nahuatl), a young girl dressed in a Mexico kit with a football under her arm. The first major sports tournament mascot had been created four years earlier: World Cup Willie, christened “a lion with a Beatle haircut and a Union Jack jersey” by the Daily Mirror, helped the FA rake in a small fortune in marketing licences at the 1966 men’s World Cup. Four years later the mascot for the men’s tournament in Mexico was Juanito, a small boy wearing a Mexico kit and a sombrero adorned with the words “Mexico ’70”. Xóchitl gave the tournament a visual focal point and soon posters of her were appearing all over Mexico City. She also featured on a range of merchandise including magazines and programmes, dolls, t-shirts, badges and bags.

Xóchitl was, however, a stylised and infantilised figure with pigtails and an hour-glass figure. Described by the Heraldo de México as “better looking than Juanito” her image was in keeping with the inconsistent attitude of the organisers. On one hand they clearly treated the tournament seriously but on the other they weren’t afraid of focusing on the sexuality of the players. “We’re really going to stress the feminine angle,” Jamie De Haro, the head of the tournament’s organising committee, told the New York Times. “It’s a natural combination of the two passions of most men around the world: soccer and women.” As if to reenforce the point, the article, which was headlined “Soccer Goes Sexy South of the Border”, suggested that “women who play soccer are not muscular monstrosities, but generally pretty girls.”

Tickets were priced between 30 and 80 pesos, which was equivalent to £1.15 to £3 at the time (£16 to £42 in today’s money) and sales exceeded expectations. The opening match between Mexico and Argentina was watched by around 80,000 people and the Mexican journalist Pablo Ares Geraldes estimated the crowd for the final was a capacity 110,000. This may seem implausible to some given the attendance for men’s final a year previously had been 107,000. However, surviving footage of the women’s final shows a packed stadium suggesting that at the very least the game had a higher attendance than the 90,000 who watched 1999 Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena – which is officially the biggest crowd for a women’s match.

The British representative at the first Fiff World Congress was Harry Batt. Fluent in several languages, Batt worked as a time-and-motion man in a factory in Luton. Along with his wife June he had formed Chiltern Valley Ladies FC in 1969 and quickly affiliated his team to the new international women’s football organisation. He was a passionate advocate of the women’s game and in 1971 argued that, “in the future there will be full-time professional ladies’ teams in this country, and we are hoping to be one of the first.” Chiltern Valley formed the backbone of the unofficial England teams he managed and, along with Denmark and Italy, they were one of only three to appear in all of the early tournaments in 1969, 1970 and 1971. “He was very astute,” said Chris Lockwood. An inside-left and reserve keeper for Chiltern, Lockwood was 15 at the time of the Mexico tournament. “Harry had all the connections with the people abroad. He could speak about six languages. He was very, very knowledgeable and he was very supportive of women’s football.”

The Batts took their unofficial England team to a small qualifying competition in Sicily in June 1971 where they booked their place in the tournament proper thanks to a 3-0 win over Austria. Eight weeks later, on August 5, the team left for Mexico City. There were no direct flights from the UK at the time and so they flew from Heathrow to New York’s Kennedy Airport and then on to Mexico City. “When we arrived the airport was packed,” Lockwood remembers. “We were coming down the stairs of the plane and everything was lit up with arc lights and I turned to one of the other girls and said, ‘There must be someone famous on this plane.’ I had no idea it was us.” 

The England team were the first to arrive in Mexico and despite the length of the flight and their jet lag, they were immediately in demand from the local media. “We were shattered really,” said Chris, “but they asked Harry if we could go straight onto the TV and about four of the girls and Harry went to the studio and the rest of us went to the hotel and watched them on the TV. That was the first time we knew how big it was.” The interest from the media would continue. Excélsior, Mexico City’s second oldest paper, had four correspondents dedicated to the tournament and, like its rival the Heraldo de México, produced regular match reports and updates on the various teams’ off-pitch activities.

When they weren’t training or playing, Lockwood and the rest of the team had numerous engagements to fulfil, including trips to the theatre and a toy store, a cocktail reception at the British Ambassador’s residency and a visit to the offices of the Heraldo. “Everybody warmed to us, so we had a lot of support of Mexican people, which was nice,” said Lockwood. “Our interpreters said it was because we had time for the people. We didn’t think of ourselves as above anybody, so when we got off the coach and there were loads of people looking for autographs we tried to sign them. If there was somebody who could speak a bit of English, we’d speak to them.”

Louise Cross was one of the few players not to come from Chiltern Valley. “I was the only person from Southampton: Just me on my jack,” she said. A left-winger, she was used to playing on poor pitches in front of a handful of people and found the reception for the team in Mexico a huge contrast. “What I found fascinating was that everywhere we went we had police escorts,” she said. “We would be picked up in a coach for a game or for training and there were people outside the hotel and lining the streets. They were really into women’s football.”

The team was provided with proper training facilities as well as playing kits, tracksuits and an official uniform which included a white jacket and a dark blue skirt. “We went to a state meal,” said Cross. “We had proper, spicy Mexican food and we met the mayor. It was like a big function. It was really nice; everything was laid on. 

“But we didn’t mix with the other teams. They were the enemy.” She was half joking. “You stick with your own.” A lavish opening ceremony led by the Band of Mexico City heralded the start of the tournament. “It was brilliant,” said Lockwood. “They had teams of kids dressed in the team kits and they went around behind banners saying ‘Inglaterra’ and the other team names. There was no expense spared. There were people on horses. It was like a carnival.”

England were drawn in Group A alongside the hosts Mexico and Argentina. Both games took place at the Azteca Stadium, the first against Argentina in front of approximately 80,000 people, the second in front of around 100,000. “I remember the dressing rooms were underground and you came up a staircase onto the pitch,” said Lockwood. “I remember the noise. If you shouted as loud as you could, the person next to you couldn’t hear you because it was just a cauldron of noise. It was very surreal. And I think that reflected in our results. I think it was a shock to the system, coming from playing on a park where you’re lucky if a few people walking their dog watch you.” 

For Cross, who was just a year older than Lockwood at 16, the noise of the crowd helped. “It was awesome,” she said. “When you ran out it was daunting but once the ball was kicked that’s it. I’d rather play in front of a massive crowd than just 20 people. If you play in front of a few people you can hear their terrible remarks, but if you play in front of a big crowd you can’t.”

Due to Mexico’s 3-1 victory over Argentina in the opening game, England’s match against la Albiceleste effectively became a play off. Win and England would progress to the semi-final. Lose and they would then need to beat the host nation in their own backyard to qualify. Despite a bright start, things didn’t go to plan. The Argentinian Elba Selva opened the scoring after seven minutes but Janice Barton pulled one back six minutes later. Then, in controversial circumstances, England were reduced to 10 players. “Janice took her shin pads off and ran over to the bench,” said Lockwood. “She handed them to June but when she went to come back on the ref stopped the game and sent her off. He said that he’d already told us that nobody was allowed to leave the pitch without his consent.”

With England at a numerical disadvantage and without their striker, the rest of the game belonged to Selva and the Argentinians. She added a second after 31 minutes and completed her hat-trick from the penalty spot three minutes later before grabbing a fourth in the second half. It was a brutal game. “We were hacked to pieces,” said Batt after the game. “It was absolutely diabolical. They came after our blood.” Two English players, the skipper Carol Ann Wilson and Yvonne Farr, and Argentina’s Angelica Cardozo all sustained fractured legs. “It was a bit dirty,” remembers Cross. “It’s different now — you can’t touch the players. Back then it was different; it was a proper contact sport; you could tackle from behind. You could do all sorts of things. I was lucky. I got a lot of bruises but nothing that stopped from me playing. I was hard. Not dirty: hard.”

Fifteen years later Maradona would score his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the same stadium to help Argentina complete what is widely regarded as the country’s first World Cup victory against England. But now there is a campaign to recognise the achievements of Selva and her compatriots and make August 21, the date of their victory over England, the ‘day of the footballer.”1

Lockwood, Cross and their teammates had little time to recuperate. The very next day they had to play their second group game, against Mexico, who had benefitted from a week’s rest after their opening-game victory over Argentina. “We were out there for over a month and for some reason our two main games were within a day of each other,” said Lockwood. “We had a lot of injuries. Yvonne carried her fracture from the game against Argentina into the Mexico game. She nearly didn’t go to the hospital, it was only because one or two others went that she did. Our goalkeeper Lil Harris had to have injections in her legs. I was our back-up keeper. I was on the bench against Mexico and they thought I might have to go on.” It was a tall order for Batt’s tired, injury-hit side and they succumbed to another heavy defeat. A brace from Teresa Aguilar Alvarado plus goals for Silva Zaragoza Herrera and Eréndira Rangel gave the home side a 4-0 victory.  “We were a bit unlucky having the Argentinians and the Mexicans in our group,” said Lockwood. “I guess they didn’t need to acclimatise.”

The following Saturday England were back in action for the fifth-place play-off against France, who had also lost both of their group games, to Denmark and Italy. “We were supposed to come home,” said Lockwood, “but they asked us to stay on so we did. I don’t think the game with France was always on the cards but as we were all allowed to stay to the end I think these business people thought, ‘We can make a bit of money.’” The French had qualified for the tournament after beating the Netherlands in April 1971 in a game that would retrospectively be the first women’s game officially recognised by Fifa. Like England, the French squad was predominantly made up of players from one club side, Stade de Reims, with a handful of players from other teams, such as Armelle Binard who was from Rouen. They were a well-drilled outfit managed by Pierre Geoffroy who worked as a journalist for a variety of newspapers including L’Équipe and France Football.

The exertions of playing Mexico and Argentina within a day of each other had taken such a toll on England’s small squad that they had to borrow three Mexican players for the match, which was played in front of 70,000 fans at the Azteca. Twice Janice Barton gave England the lead, in the 10th and 16th minute, but the French levelled first through Binard after 12 minutes and then Jocelyne Henry after 22. Despite missing their leading player Michèle Wolf, who could not get time off from the greengrocer’s where she worked, the French proved too strong and Ghislaine Royer scored the winner just after the half-hour mark. “That was a disappointing result,” said Cross matter-of-factly.

Denmark crushed the Argentinians 5-0 in the semi-final while the hosts beat Italy 2-1. Because of their unexpected extended stay in Mexico, the England team were guests at the final where the saw Denmark beat Mexico 3-0, with then 15-year-old Susanne Augustesen scoring a hat-trick. “I think the Italians thought they were going to win the whole thing so they were very upset when they got knocked out,” said Lockwood. “But the Danish were out of this world. I’ve never seen such a brilliant display of football as they gave. They deserved to win it.”

The interest in the tournament that the players experienced in Mexico was not repeated when they returned to England. “It was just like going into Dr Who’s Tardis,” said Lockwood. “You went in as a normal kid and you came out the end and there’s photographers, autograph hunters, flashing lights, newspaper men. But when it was over the doors shut and that was it. Our schools never mentioned it, nobody spoke about it. It was just a story we kept to ourselves.” Despite their lack of interest before the tournament, the WFA wasted no time in acting afterwards. They took full control of the England team, in part to ensure that unofficial teams like Batt’s wouldn’t be able to represent the country in the future, and set about inflicting draconian punishments on those who took part in Mexico. Batt was banned for life for “bringing the game into disrepute”, while many of the players were banned for six months and fined. Very soon Chiltern Valley Ladies ceased to exist.

The players lost out in other ways too. The striker Janice Barton had been forced to give up her job working in a bank so she could go and Lockwood had to choose between her studies and her sport. “My school told me that if I missed my O-Level mocks to go to the qualifying tournament in Sicily I couldn’t take the exams, so I just did CSEs; I wasn’t allowed to do O-Levels. I was persecuted for it, but it was a different time.” 

Cross carried on playing for Southampton but she drifted away from the game after about five years. “The ban was pathetic,” she said, “and after Mexico I noticed that when I used to play for Southampton the manager Norman Holloway used to sub me a lot. He’d never done that before and some of the other players were a bit funny towards me. It was things like that that I had to put up with. I was like an outcast.”

The success of the tournament forced the hand of the football authorities and in many ways 1971 was a landmark year for the women’s game. At Uefa’s Extraordinary Congress in Monte Carlo it was acknowledged that women’s football was played in 22 countries across the continent but was under the control of just eight national associations. Prompted by the highly commercialised nature of the Mexico tournament and the potential threat to their power base such a tournament presented, Uefa subsequently passed a motion requesting that all national associations took control of the women’s game in their respective countries. 

While countries like Germany, Norway and Sweden embraced the request and developed the sport, in the main the following decade was marked by intransigence at national and international level. On 29 November 1971 the FA lifted its 50-year ban on women’s football and set up a joint consultative committee with the WFA. It offered no money to the women’s game and it would be a further 12 years before the WFA was fully affiliated to the FA. Not until 1991 would Fifa organise an official Women’s World Cup. Once again it seemed the predominantly male authorities of the men’s game were trying to do all they could to stifle the women’s game. “It’s amazing how the powers that be can put a cloth over things,” Lockwood said. “They just ignore it and then it dies a death. That’s the heartbreak of it all. Some of the girls along the way were truly brilliant players but no one has ever heard of them. I’ve been very lucky: I had all that. Right place, right time.”