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Copa 71 Review

by Daniel Reynolds
3.0 out of 5.0 stars

While her involvement is superfluous, it’s striking to see the surprise on retired soccer player Brandi Chastain’s face as she’s shown footage of a 1971 women’s game, the stadium filled to bursting with cheering fans. That’s Copa 71, the documentary directed by James Erskine and Rachel Ramsay, in miniature. It’s also unintentionally reflective of a certain North American (or just American) view of sports history (or just history): if it didn’t involve us, how could it have happened?

As narrated by none other than Serena Williams, Copa 71 still works as a corrective. The official record of the FIFA Women’s World Cup begins in 1991, so it does come as a shock to see images of Azteca Stadium in Mexico City filled with over 100,000 people as squads of women take to the pitch to play soccer. For those unfamiliar (like me), this “unsanctioned” tournament was seen at the time as a golden marketing opportunity—more for its sponsors Martini & Rossi, though, than for the growth of the women’s game itself, which was, also shockingly, still illegal in some countries. This context is important as Erskine and Ramsay present the talking heads of many of the players from the tourney—including standouts like powerhouse Elena Schiavo and the brassy Carol Wilson—their names previously lost to history. It also makes it hard to be overly harsh towards the film, even as it ultimately comes off feeling too lightweight, its aim true in spirit yet nonetheless missing the goal.

While the footage of the games in Copa 71 is stupendous, the editing of the documentary often makes it seem too jittery and staged to feel real. At other times, while the players are given quite a voice, what we learn about them shines through despite the busy efforts of the filmmakers. And then, yes, the Americans start weighing in, which is nice in intention—they’re part of the same continuum of struggle for legitimacy—but silly in effect. Just let the actual legends speak for themselves and leave it at that.

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