After all, football was still not really a sport for girls back at home. They weren’t expecting massive crowds. And they certainly weren’t expecting to be talked about almost half a century later.
Now, as England prepare for the semi-final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup against the USA, the women who blazed a trail nearly five decades ago are together again – and roaring on a new generation of Lionesses.
“They’ve done so well – they’re getting stronger and stronger and stronger, and we’re behind them 100 per cent,” says Carol Wilson, the captain back in 1971.
Mexico was all set up to host a major tournament; they had hosted the men’s World Cup the year before, so the organisers knew there were plenty of fans who wanted to watch top-quality football.
More than that, some big brands were on board to promote the competition and provide sponsorship money.
It was certainly needed. The 1971 Women’s World Cup was not an official FIFA tournament – the governing bodies of world football did not bother themselves too much with the women’s game then, and certainly did not organise competitive tournaments for national sides.
Nor were the England team sanctioned by the FA, who did not lift its 50-year ban on women playing football at all until later that same year.
“We weren’t a professional team, we had no support whatsoever,” says Wilson.
They were under the management of Harry Batt, coach of Chiltern Valley, who had been invited to bring a representative team along, as he had done to another international tournament in Italy the year before. He was very careful to bill his team as “British Independents” rather than England.
Nonetheless, the organisers of the six-team tournament referred to them as ‘Ingleterra’, which caused some disgruntlement back at home with the FA and the Women’s FA, who controlled women’s football – they did not want anyone laying claim to the England name without proper authority.
“Harry worked tirelessly,” recalls Wilson. “He had to beg to get us sponsorship so we could go. We didn’t know any of this – he kept it from us because he wanted us to just concentrate on the football.”
Most of that squad were teenagers, and had started playing football in local parks, kicking a ball about with local boys, with the proverbial jumpers for goalposts. They did not attract crowds back at home, of course, so playing in front of over 90,000 fans in the famous Azteca Stadium was quite a shock.
And, although they failed to register a win in Mexico, they still see the tournament as a success.
“We were kids,” says Wilson. “That stadium held 107,000, and I didn’t see many spare seats. It was two, three times the size of crowds they’re getting at the moment, and it was daunting. We had six men and their dogs in England, and we were getting hurled abuse half the time! To go in front of all these people, and they thought you were gods – we weren’t used to any of that.”
The heat and altitude was also a surprise, as were some of the other playing conditions.
“We had a short while where we could walk out on to the pitch and just acclimatise ourselves,” says Wilson. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a flat pitch’ – we used to play on sloping pitches in the UK!”
They see today’s Lionesses as fine role models – extending the Mexico legacy into the future.
“They’re such good ambassadors for the game,” says Jill Brader nee Stockley, the 1971 team’s winger. “Phil Neville has done us proud.”
And they are all excited to be reunited. 48 years on, 11 groundbreaking Lionesses are heading to Lyon to cheer on Neville’s side courtesy of UEFA’s #weplaystrong campaign – Wilson, Brader, Christine Lockwood, Janice Emms, GIll Sayell, Marlene Rowe, Yvonne Bradley, Paula Milnes, Leah Caleb, Jean Elliot and Louise Gardner.
“This experience has been phenomenal for us,” says Wilson. “We’re so grateful. The whole team are reeling. We’re in the same sort of bubble we were at that time – it’s taken us back a wee bit!”