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A DOCUMENTARY DETAILING the story of the first women’s football team to ever represent England on the world stage will air on television this week. Copa’71: The Lost Lionesses will be shown as part of the BBC FOUR Storyville series at 10:00pm on Tuesday 11 June – and it will feature AFC Totton’s very own Louise Gardner, who was one of the youngest members of the squad.

Louise (pictured above) is a regular participant of AFC Totton’s Walking Football sessions, that take place on the club’s MUGA pitch – located behind the SFS Main Stand – twice a week. Twenty years before the first official FIFA Women’s World Cup was staged, Louise (whose maiden name was Louise Cross) was a member of the 14-woman squad that defied England’s Football Association to make the 5,370+ miles flight to Central America to take part in the 1971 tournament held under the auspices of the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF).

The FA did not recognise the FIEFF World Cup – but coach Harry Batt and his team were not to be denied. They entered the competition under the name of the British Independent Ladies, soon finding themselves being referred to by the local fans as Inglaterra, the Spanish word for “England”.

Copa’71 tells the detailed story of the tournament, and of the struggles that the squad faced to take part and to have their achievements recognised by the powers that led English football at the time and throughout the years since.

The film was directed by Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine, and supported in an Executive Producer capacity by the famous tennis playing duo of Serena & Venus Williams, together with current USWNT international Alex Morgan, who had a brief spell at Tottenham Hotspur in 2020 and now plays for San Diego Wave in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States.

The rest of this article will provide spoilers for the documentary, so if you’d rather see the film first, please do so and return to read the rest of this piece at your leisure.

Read TV & Satellite Magazine's review of Copa'71: The Lost Lionesses

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Playing in front of crowds of up to 90,000 at the famous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, they lost 0-4 to Argentina and, the very next day, 1-4 to the host nation.

Despite finishing bottom of their group, the England team were so popular with the Mexican fans for the manner in which they played the game, that a 5th-placed Play-Off was hastily arranged for them to play against France, which they lost 2-3, having led 2-1 at one stage.

Louise, who worked as a short-hand typist for Totton-based firm Boulton Timber, was 16 years-old at the time, and played as a left winger.

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WING WIZARDESS: Louise Gardner represented her country at the 1971 tournament in Mexico.

The campaign to see the 14 women of the England 1971 Women’s World Cup squad receive formal recognition from the FA for their exploits included articles in the national press, an appearance on BBC One’s The One Show and an earlier documentary entitled Trailblazer, that was premiered at Solent University ahead of last year’s UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 tournament – and, more recently, the Copa’71 film.

Speaking to ITV Meridian, Louise said:

“We were told that women can’t play football. They’re supposed to be at home. Everything was acting against you. That’s why I never told anybody that I played football.

“For me it’s amazing. Because it’s been hidden for more than 50 years. It’s lovely to get the documentary out and then some of the girls might watch it and think if that lady can do it, then I can do it.”

Speaking to the AFC Totton Matchday Programme, Louise described the experience of approaching the Azteca Stadium through the throngs of local supporters:

“On the journey to the stadium for the first time, we had to have a police escort to help get our team bus through the crowds. The people were all friendly but there were just so many of them,” she recalls.

“There were paparazzi – not that we knew that word back then – autograph hunters, people wanting photographs and organised meet-and-greet events with sponsors. It was all very alien to us but it was a great experience.”

Upon their return to England, the players were banned from playing organised football, many of them to never kick a ball again, and until recently, they remained unrecognised and yet to receive their international caps.

But, a fan-led initiative on behalf of the Football Supporters’ Association has created 14 bespoke England caps, one for each of the players in the squad. Each cap is inspired by a player who played after the ’71 team and was designed by fashion designer, Sophie Hird.

Louise was finally presented with her cap before AFC Totton’s home game against Didcot Town on Wednesday 25 October 2023, by Harry Batt’s son Keith, who had travelled to Mexico with the squad as a child in 1971.

Copa’71 had its UK Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 08 October 2023, and was subsequently selected for screening at the Hebden Bridge Film Festival in March 2024 when it was accompanied by a Q&A session featuring several members of the squad.

StoryvilleCopa’71: The Lost Lionesses will air on BBC FOUR at 10:00pm on Tuesday 11 June 2024, and will subsequently be available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.

Read TV & Satellite Magazine's review of Copa'71: The Lost Lionesses

By Ben Rochey-Adams

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