Football’s governing body, Fifa, wants us to believe that women’s football has never had it so good. But history tells a different story—and it’s one that those who run football would rather was forgottenby Gemma Clarke / June 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
We are encouraged to believe these are unprecedented times for women’s football, days of financial plenitude, corporate sponsorship and unparalleled fandom. This year’s World Cup in France, running until 7th July, is seen as a pivotal moment. The first time England’s lionesses have attracted such attention—all of their matches will be broadcast on BBC One—and the team’s first time competing in such a well-attended, prestigious tournament.
Football’s governing body, Fifa, wants us to believe that women’s football has never had it so good. But history tells a different story—and it’s one that those who run football would rather was forgotten.
In August 1971, Harry Batt boarded an Aerovías de México flight from London with his wife, June, and 14 young women whom he had picked to represent England in a World Cup. The teammates eyed each other nervously as the aircraft thundered down the runway. Several players had never been abroad, let alone so far afield. But, as the team’s centre-forward Jan Emms (née Barton) recalls, trepidation soon gave way to excitement. “We were like, ‘Yeah! We’re on our way to Mexico, we’re gonna play in the World Cup! It doesn’t get any better than this.’”
Batt, who was secretary of the Chiltern Valley women’s team, believed in women’s football. He assembled his England squad in spite of repeated warnings from the Football Association, which was still enforcing a decades-long, nationwide ban on the women’s game, ensuring it retained its amateur status. Fifa, meanwhile, refused to sanction a women’s tournament.
The 1971 World Cup was organised by a rival women’s football federation and funded by the beverage brand Martini & Rossi. Mexico had hosted the men’s Fifa World Cup in 1970 so the stadiums were impressive and the crowds primed. Thanks to Martini & Rossi, no expense was spared. England and the five other teams, Denmark, Argentina, Italy, France and Mexico, were afforded everything the male players had enjoyed the previous year: impressive kits, a tournament mascot, a golden trophy and five-star accommodation.
The opening ceremony took place in a packed Azteca Stadium. Emms, who was used to playing for Batt’s team at Chiltern Valley, was astounded. “Going from one man and his dog watching on a Sunday afternoon to standing in front…