Women’s Soccer Has Lessons To Learn From Commercial Success Of 1971 World Cup

Picture take on June 1971 showing the Mexican women’s football national team who took place in the … [+] 1971 Women’ World Cup. (Photo by – / AFP) (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

On August 15, 1971, 20 years before the first official Women’s World Cup was recognized by FIFA, Mexico and Argentina stepped out to face each other at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City before an estimated crowd of 100,000 spectators to open an international tournament where six nations competed for the title of women’s soccer world champions.

When the hosts reached the final three weeks later, an even larger attendance, reported to be of around 110,000 watched Denmark defeat Mexico to win the title, a world record for any women’s sporting event which still stands 50 years later, belying the notion that the popularity of international women’s soccer is a recent phenomena. So, as the women’s game strives to grow, can any lessons be drawn from a tournament which attracted crowds the modern game can only dream of?

Now, the Women’s World Cup comes under the umbrella of the game’s world governing body, FIFA, but half a century ago women’s soccer had yet to be embraced, or in many cases, even recognized, by the traditional governing bodies of the men’s game. The 1971 Women’s World Cup was organized by the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF). With no official backing or support from any national soccer association, it was the second such competition played in successive years, both won by Denmark.

Each tournament was bankrolled by Italian alcoholic beverage company Martini & Rossi who covered the expenses of each team’s travel, accommodation and kits. Their name also adorned the gold trophy, valued at 100,000 Mexican pesos ($5000), to be presented to the winning team. After the Mexican Football Federation threatened to fine any club that allowed women to play in their stadium, the privately-owned Estadio Azteca and Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara were used to stage matches.

On the back of Mexico successfully hosting the 1968 Summer Olympics and 1970 men’s World Cup, the sponsors capitalized on the momentum generated to attract world record attendances and unmatched media interest in the women’s game. Professor Jean Williams, the academic lead for the Hidden Histories of Women’s Football project at the National Football Museum in England, believes the 1971 Women’s World Cup conclusively proves why women’s soccer tournaments should always be staged in the biggest showpiece stadiums.

Unlike in Mexico, which hosted women’s matches at the two largest stadiums used during the 1970 men’s World Cup, the 2011 Women’s World Cup final was staged at Frankfurt’s 48,500 Waldstadion five years after the men’s final was staged at the 74,475 capacity Olympiastadion in Berlin. Similarly, the 2019 women’s final was staged in Lyon’s 59,186 capacity Parc OL rather than the 80,000 Stade de France in Paris. According to Williams “the assumptions of the FIFA model is they don’t expect to, and cannot, sell out large stadia”.

In 1971 the Mexican media gave the players unrivaled coverage, with daily reports focusing on each team’s arrival in the country through to training sessions and official functions. Williams thinks such concerted use of the mainstream media is not being utilized effectively by the modern women’s game where the emphasis is on social media campaigns aimed at a young audience rather than more traditional television and newspaper coverage which reaches a broader, more diverse, fan-base.

“Each of the teams in 1971 had a TV company and newspaper following them around so they were just in the news all the time. It kept them in the public eye which meant that people were interested enough to buy tickets. There’s an assumption that women’s soccer is social media-driven. It’s using the full-range of media, like newspapers – dedicated writers in broadsheets and tabloids – using television programs to regularly host women talking about playing soccer. It’s that’s whole more holistic strategy.”

A New York Times article published on the eve of the 1971 tournament provocatively headlined Soccer Goes Sexy South Of Border quoted Jaime De Haro, head of the local organizing committee as saying “We’re really going to stress the feminine angle. . . The combination of the two passions of most men around the world: soccer and women.” Central to that strategy was the tournament’s official mascot Xochitl, meaning Flower, a girl in pigtails with an impossible figure who was used to market everything associated with the championship from T-shirts to records. A flower with a football center was used to adorn the colorful match tickets.

A tournament program from the 1971 Women’s World Cup featuring Xochitl, the official mascot


The article went to explain that the goalposts would be painted pink, the players’ shorts would “be as close as possible to hot pants” and beauty salons would be set up in the changing rooms so the players “can present themselves for interviews and public ceremonies complete with false eye lashes, lipstick and an attractive hairdo.”

Although such overtly sexist attitudes to women in sport are thankfully no longer tolerated, Williams believes, in reality, little has changed in the way women’s soccer is marketed. “The phrase that we academics use for that is the “ubiquitous ponytail””, she explains to me, illustrating how female players used in marketing campaigns are often those considered to look “hyper-feminine” in order to appeal to modern governing bodies target audience of young girls. Williams believes this strategy is misguided as there is little evidence that more women and girls attend women’s soccer matches. “The whole way that women’s soccer is being sold, in academic terms, is hetero-normative. The research show that 50-60% of the fans of women’s soccer are men”.

By targeting the predominantly male audience who already paid to watch soccer in Mexico, the 1971 hosts generated sufficient interest to persuade them to part with between 30 and 80 pesos, prices equivalent to those charged at the previous year’s men’s World Cup, for tickets to attend women’s soccer matches in the hope of recapturing the same big-event atmosphere as the year previously.

50 years on, despite burgeoning attendances and sponsorship, no event in the women’s game has quite captured the attention of a local population as Mexico’s Campeonato Mundial de Fútbol Feminil. The star of the final was the 15-year-old striker Susanne Augustesen, who scored all three goals as Denmark retained their world title. She was welcomed with a civic reception in her home-town of Holbæk. A year later, the Danish Federation (DBU) set up their national team and despite moving to Italy, winning six national titles and finishing as the league’s overall top goalscorer on eight occasions, Augustesen was never called up to play for the official Danish national team.

HORSENS, DENMARK – MARCH 20: Susanne Augustesen and Lone Schmidt Nielsen are announced on stage as … [+] new member of the Danish Fodboldens Hall of Fame (Footballs Hall of Fame) during the Danish Football Award Show at Forum Horsens on March 20, 2017 in Horsens, Denmark. (Photo by Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images)

FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

Official recognition for Augustesen, who should be remembered as one of the international stars of the women’s game, only came in 2017 when she became one of the first women inducted into the DBU Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech she said she hoped to serve as a role model for girls playing soccer all over the country.

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