The Epic, Forgotten 1971 Women's World Cup

In 1971, an "unofficial" Women's World Cup in Mexico drew massive crowds. It should have been the beginning of a new era for women's soccer -- then FIFA went offsides.

This week’s Sports Stories is being sent to you directly from Mexico City. When I lived here many years ago, I wrote a fair bit about sports, especially lucha libre (a subject we visited in an early issue of Sports Stories) -- but for the most part, I tried my best to avoid writing about the sport that dominates life in this city and country: soccer. 

The truth is, I always feel like a poser when I write about soccer. I like it. I appreciate it. But I can tell there’s so much more going on under the surface. I know that other people understand it, and feel it, on a much deeper intellectual and emotional level. I’m so insecure about this that before I wrote my one soccer dispatch-- about the Mexican men’s national team before the 2014 World Cup -- I literally read a 450-page book on the history of tactics. (Inverting the Pyramid) by Jonathan Wilson; I didn’t plan on actually finishing it, but it was really good!) 

So with all that said: this Sports Stories is about soccer. In particular, it’s about the most interesting soccer tournament this city has ever hosted: not the 1970 World Cup that was Pelé’s last great moment of international glory, and not the 1986 World Cup that saw Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal. 

This is about the time that 110,000 people filled the country’s biggest and most important stadium -- Estadio Azteca, where Pelé and Maradona made their legends -- to watch Mexico face Denmark in the final match of an unsanctioned, unofficial and massively successful women’s world cup tournament that was sponsored and almost completely paid for by an Italian beverage company. 

The World Cup in 1971 was an inflection point for women’s soccer. Or at least it should have been. Up until the tournament, FIFA, the sport’s governing body, had a policy of aggressively ignoring women. This despite the fact that women had been playing organized soccer for as long as men -- including in well-attended, high-level matches in Europe.

In the 1960s, FIFA’s position regarding women’s soccer was looking increasingly ridiculous (and more obviously sexist) by the day. Women were claiming more space for themselves in previously male-dominated parts of society. There was obviously a market for women playing organized soccer. And yet nothing changed. Sensing this market in Europe, some women’s soccer boosters began to organize international soccer tournaments to fill the gap that FIFA didn’t want to. They created a group with the acronym FIEFF, which was later shortened to FIFF. They held their first tournament in 1969. 

Here’s the writer Roger Domeneghetti in The Blizzard

Its commercial attraction was becoming apparent to a range of businesses who were in a position to exploit it thanks to their marketing structures and media contacts. Fieff was backed by several of the businesses behind Italian women’s league clubs, key among them the Italian drinks company Martini & Rossi. 

In 1970, the company sponsored a tournament called, no joke, the Martini & Rossi Cup in Italy -- this became essentially the first unofficial women’s world cup tournament. It was a big success. And Mexico even came all the way across the ocean to compete with the European sides. 

At the time, organized women’s soccer was just beginning to take off in Mexico as well. Professional clubs began organizing women’s teams to compete in an amateur league that played across the country. It was from these clubs that the Mexican team was chosen. They traveled to Italy with basically nothing: no money, no formal training as a team, and no support system back home. Their uniforms were paid for by Martini & Rossi, but they didn’t have uniforms to wear for the opening ceremony; they didn’t even have a Mexican flag. For the procession, they borrowed an Italian flag and attached an Aztec calendar to the center in place of the national shield. 

And yet the tournament made an impression on the players, and on Mexican officials. One Mexican player, Alicia Vargas, led the tournament in scoring, and gained the nickname “La Pelé.” It was decided that the following year, Mexico would host a bigger, more “real” Women’s World Cup event using the same facilities that the men had used in the men’s 1970 World Cup. 

The success of the previous year’s tournament in Italy had piqued the attention of FIFA, who banned the Mexican Futbol Federation from being involved in any kind of unsanctioned women’s tournament. (Not that they were interested in providing any other alternatives.) That led the World Cup organizers to use only private facilities. Thankfully, these included Azteca -- the country’s largest most iconic stadium. 

Six teams came to Mexico in 1971: England, Italy, Denmark, France, Argentina, and Mexico. The event was promoted ceaselessly in Mexico: it was all over TV and all over the papers. Members of the English team described the surreal experience of going from being nobodies back home, to landing in Mexico City as celebrities, and being shuttled straight to a television studio for interviews. 

The tournament’s organizers spared no expense in promoting the event -- this in itself was a novelty: treating a women’s tournament as if it was a serious thing that people would actually want to watch. The matches were televised in Mexico, and stadiums were filled. It wasn’t a perfect example of feminism: the tournament’s mascot was a weirdly flirtatious little girl in pigtails named Xochitl; promoters ensured that the goalposts were painted pink; “It’s a natural combination of the two passions of most men around the world: soccer and women,” one of the tournament’s organizers told the New York Times. 

Over the final days of August and the early days of September, the tournament went off relatively smoothly. Mexico games especially drew huge crowds. The team became somewhat of a local phenomenon as they advanced through group play, and into the finals against Denmark. 

Then they did something unexpected. The team had been playing for free for a year, since the 1970 tournament. They had been uncompensated for their practice time, and for their time competing in actual games -- even as organizers and sponsors raked in money from the massive gates. So before the final, the Mexican team asked for some compensation.

This did not go over well. The general response in the Mexican press was along the line of “who do these girls think they are?” As the hours ticked away before the final, it became increasingly clear that no payment would be coming. The team could have sat out, but while doing so would have been a way to stick it to the tournament organizers — it would have also been a disappointment to literally an entire nation. So it was decided: they would play. The final was held on September 5, 1971. 110,000 fans poured into Azteca for the game. I’m no soccer expert, but I’ve been to Azteca enough times to understand that it’s a special experience. Simply approaching the stadium after a (presumably) long journey across the vast city feels like an act of pilgrimage. Then, when you’re inside, you feel tiny: so far away from the action on the field and yet absolutely a part of it. Estadio Azteca is not beautiful, but it is mighty. And the women on the field felt the full force of its might. The crowd matched the largest men’s World Cup draws. Players remembered looking up and seeing people sitting in the aisles. On the field, the Mexican team could not put it together. It was an uninspiring performance, and Denmark won 3-0.

However, the feeling was that this was the beginning of something great; that after Mexico City, women’s international soccer would blossom.But it didn’t, at least not for decades.According to Domeneghetti, after the tournament, UEFA (the European Football Association) felt so threatened by the possibility of commercially successful women’s soccer that it requested its member associations “take control of the women’s sport” so as to avoid future competition. Some countries took this seriously and developed training programs for women, but most didn’t. 

Meanwhile, FIFA lifted its ban on women’s soccer. But because this action was accompanied by zero funding for the women’s game, nothing happened; women’s soccer was now under the control of the men who had wanted nothing to do with it previously, and wanted nothing to do with it still.

It would be twenty years until the first “official” Women’s World Cup was held, in 1991. 

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Related Reading

I would start with the aforementioned Roger Domeneghetti essay in The Blizzard. It’s a nice piece of historical writing that focuses especially on the England team. (They are a fascinating story in their own right.) There’s also a cool little Google Arts & Culture page (not sure what these are exactly) showing some primary sources about the early history of the Women’s World Cup, and including more on England in particular. For yet another look at the English side, here’s a BBC story on the ‘71 team.

The best resource on the Mexican team I could find was this awesome short Spanish-language documentary featuring the voices of the players. It also goes into the near-strike before the final game.

For a little more (also in Spanish on the tournament from a Mexico perspective check out these stories in El Universal and La Vanguardia


This has been Vol. 15 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

Sports Stories is 100 percent free. If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and want to show your appreciation, the best way to do that would be to sign up, share it on social media, or forward it to someone you think might enjoy it too.

The Great Gama

The wrestling legend ate six pounds of butter and did three thousand pushups a day.

The Great Gama was great. He was the strongest, toughest, most disciplined man on earth. He ate six pounds of butter and did three thousand pushups a day. His body was a tourist attraction and his skills as a grappler were unmatched in the thousands of years humans spent wrestling one another before his birth. 

The Great Gama was great, but he was not a tall man. He stood only five foot seven inches -- much shorter than many of the oddballs and monsters he defeated in the ring. 

He was born in Amritsar, which is now part of the Indian state of Punjab. But he lived most of his life in Lahore, which is now part of the Pakistani state of Punjab. He was born a Muslim, but the Great Gama transcended religion. The Great Gama had a name: it was Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt. He also has an origin story befitting a superhero, or a tall tale, which is what the Great Gama has become. His parents died when he was young, and he was mostly raised by an uncle who was a wrestler. Soon his talents were discovered. Soon he was sent to train under the guidance of a local maharaja. 

He traveled the world on steamships and railroads. He took on the best of America and the best of Europe. He laid waste to entire continents. Nobody ever defeated the Great Gama, but a few men wrestled him to a draw. Sometimes, he would go years without a match because nobody was willing to wrestle him. Slowly, he began to wrestle less and less. He turned fifty years old, and then sixty. 

In 1947, just before the Great Gama turned seventy, the British Empire partitioned his land into two countries. The newly imposed border between India and Pakistan ran right through the region that was Gama’s home. Everything was aflame. Millions of people were displaced, killed, injured. 

It was too much for Gama. He was born a Muslim, but he transcended religion. When Muslim rioters attacked Hindus near where the Gama lived in Lahore, he slapped them down -- literally and figuratively. He stood before them with a group of wrestlers at his back. The city stood still around them. Then he paid for the victims’ safe passage to border. The Great Gama transcended religion. The world was full of brothers and sisters. 

He wrestled for a few more years. But by then the Great Gama was an old man. The world was full of brothers and sisters and boxers and pretenders. No amount of pushups can stop time. Gama died in 1960 at the age of 82. He was still great then. He only becomes greater with each passing year.

This has been Vol. 14 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

Sports Stories is 100 percent free. If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and want to show your appreciation, the best way to do that would be to sign up, share it on social media, or forward it to someone you think might enjoy it too.

Lily Gower: Croquet Madame

At the turn of the twentieth century, croquet was booming -- and the world's greatest champion was a woman.

This, the first issue of Sports Stories in the new decade, is about sports at the turn of the last century. In particular, it’s about a sport that was immensely popular, viciously competitive -- and most remarkably -- an oasis of gender equality in a deeply unequal society: croquet. 

Before women in Britain or the United States earned the right to vote, a woman became the world’s undisputed croquet champion. Her name was Lilias Mary Gower. She was born and raised in an actual castle in the Welsh countryside. She was a daughter of privilege, so it only made sense that she would play croquet, the sport of choice in high society. (At least until tennis came along.)

The croquet craze started in earnest around the mid 1800s, as the sport evolved from an Irish game called “crooky.” (I imagine that a bunch of fancy Englishmen smoking pipes decided that croquet just *sounded* more serious than crooky so they changed it.) But people have been hitting balls with sticks for centuries -- there are a lot of theories as to the specific evolution of the sport, none that is clearly the right one. 

What matters though, is that in this particular moment, croquet found a world that was ready for it. There was an appetite for leisure activities, and an appetite for funny sticks. For instance: in 1868 six fancy Englishman got together and decided to form a croquet club. They called it the All England Croquet Club, and located it in a town called Wimbledon. A decade later, as another sport with funny sticks became popular they changed the name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. 

Croquet was immensely popular among proper seeming types, but it was not exactly a bastion of sportsmanship. Croquet players were notorious cheaters, and games often devolved into screaming matches and prolonged bouts of he said/she said. The issue of cheating in croquet was so commonplace that it became a sort of running trope in literature. In 1867, a  young writer named Lewis Carroll spoofed it in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the book (which is very realistic), young Alice gets challenged to a game of croquet by the Queen. The Queen cheats.

A year later, an American writer named Louisa May Alcott included a scene of croquet cheating in her novel Little Women. (In it, a British dude named Fred, who thinks he’s smooth, nudges a ball through a wicket with his foot but gets caught by our protagonist Jo march.) 

Carroll and Alcott were both prescient writers, and unfortunately their work foreshadowed the fate of young Lily Gower, whose glorious career would also be fraught with scandal. Gower was born in 1877, the year that the Wimbledon club added tennis to its name. Over the course of her childhood, croquet became increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. (President Rutherford B. Hayes even got in trouble for spending $6 of government money on some nice croquet balls for the White House.)

With the growth of croquet clubs like the one at Wimbledon, the sport also became a more formalized entity. Rule books, manuals, and guides to croquet were widely published. Tournaments were organized. There was no NBA or English Premier League for croquet stars, but certain events gained prestige, and the competition was fierce. The competition was also fully inclusive, gender-wise. As the historian John Sterngass has put it:

Female grace and good manners may have been the ideal for the rule-and-taste-makers, but on the croquet ground a peculiar sort of gender reversal enabled women to temporarily jettison their passive role and often dominate, if not humiliate men. 

This led to (male) croquet players and fans getting mad and accusing women of cheating. As Sterngass points out, this phenomenon was widespread enough that Lewis Carroll thought it worthy of literary attention. He returned to croquet in his final novel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: “Look at the way Croquet is demoralising Society,” a young doctor named Arthur bemoans. “Ladies are beginning to cheat at it, terribly: and, if they’re found out, they only laugh, and call it fun.”

In the 1890s, Gower began her ascent in organized croquet: she dominated, she humiliated, she took a mallet to the competition. Tall and slender and playing with a long mallet, Gower won at Maidstone, at Wimbledon, and at all points in between. She came to be considered the greatest player, male or female, in England. 

Here’s some writing from Womanhood magazine in 1902:

Miss Gower repeated her triumph over the men of a year ago, and in doing so not only displayed much of the skill that has made her name famous wherever the pastime is played, but positively appeared to upset the form of her opponents, notably Mr. H. Black, whose tenacity . . . seemed to desert him, and Mr. Woolston, who, despite his high abilities . . . is apparently quite incapable of playing his best against the championess.

This was about the time that the scandal hit. The aforementioned Woolston accused Gower of cheating during the 1901 British open -- more specifically, he said she was guilty of “spooning.” In croquet parlance at the time, that meant using the mallet to push, instead of strike a ball. 

Nothing came of the accusation. (There’s not much documented about it.) But according to Sterngass, Woolston ended up facing backlash for making the accusation in the first place, for by doing so, he was acting ungentlemanly, which was an even greater scandal than cheating. 

Lily Gower would continue to dominate the sport in the years to come. And in 1906, she finally found a male competitor whose tenacity did not desert him in front of the championess. His name was Reginald CJ Beaton. They were married that year, and continued to compete against one another in the decades to come as husband and wife. 

Related Reading

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t that many books *about* croquet, especially books that remain in print. However, there are a lot of books that feature croquet, especially from the Victorian era. Definitely do read Lewis Carroll and Louisa May Alcott. (Thank you to my Twitter followers for sharing the disappointing news that the new Little Women movie does not heavily feature croquet.)

In terms of shorter stuff, I highly recommend the essay “Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze” by Jon Sterngaass. I quoted from Sterngass a tiny bit above, but honestly the whole read is an adventure -- way weirder and wilder than anything you’d expect from an article about croquet in The Journal of Sport History. 

It’s available for free on JSTOR if you are willing to create an account.

Another good one from the Journal of Sports History is this one by Catriona M. Paratt. Helpfully it’s available in PDF form here:

“Athletic “Womanhood”: Exploring Sources for Female Sport in Victorian and Edwardian England”

Otherwise, I enjoyed sifting through contemporaneous magazines about croquet.

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Wimbledon

Just a quick aside on Wimbledon: there was a lot of stress about changing the name to add lawn tennis in the first place in 1877. But then five years later, in 1882, tennis was so big that the club dropped croquet to just become the All England Tennis Club. Only people didn’t feel right about it, so in 1899 they reinserted croquet into the name (but this time after tennis). Here’s a quick timeline of the identity crisis:

1868: All England Croquet Club

1877: All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club

1882: All England Tennis Club

1899: All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

An Endorsement 

Normally I’d add something insightful here about the history of croquet in the years since Lily Gower wielded her mallet. Obviously the sport has lost some cache, and become increasingly niche. But here’s what I’m going to do instead: encourage you to go out and play croquet. You can almost certainly find a used set super cheap.

Or if not croquet, go play another low key, off the radar sport. Get into bocce ball, or badminton, or my favorite of all, ping pong. Don’t worry too much about being good. But find some time to play with your friends, or your kids, or your weird neighbors. 

It’s a new year. It’s a good time to make our own Sports Stories. But remember: no spooning. 

This has been Vol. 13 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

Sports Stories is 100 percent free. If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and want to show your appreciation, the best way to do that would be to sign up, share it on social media, or forward it to someone you think might enjoy it too.

Happy Holidays (Thread)

Adam and I just wanted to send a quick note of thanks to all our subscribers and readers for joining us on this journey through sport, history, and sports history.

We’ll be back after the new year with Sports Stories about: croquet, women’s hoops, hockey, baseball, basketball, futbol, football, organized crime (not necessarily a sport), and punk rock (definitely a sport).

As we move into the new year, we also want your feedback. So if you have any resolutions for Sports Stories (or anything else Sports Stories-related you want to discuss), please feel free to share and discuss with us in the thread below.

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The Dan Marino Story

This newsletter is about Dan Marino, jet skis, and the kindness of strangers.

This week we’re doing something different for Sports Stories. We’re going to try a personal story. A nice one, I promise.  It’s about fandom, and football, and my childhood spent as an obsessive Miami Dolphins fan in Los Angeles. 

I guess that sets the scene. I grew up in a family of Dolphins fans. My mom’s family moved from Havana to Miami when she was a little girl. When the Dolphins got going in 1966, my grandpa Murray (who was originally from New Jersey) became a fan right away. He told me once that he was a season ticket holder, but truth was more of an emotional than factual thing when he told stories -- so I can’t say with confidence that he was. 

Fast forward to the 1980s, and my mom and her sisters are living in LA. They weren’t in Miami to watch Dan Marino throw a record-setting 48 touchdown passes and lead the Dolphins to the only Super Bowl appearance of his career in 1984. My parents were dating, though. They got married, and I was born in 1986.

That was a pretty average year for Marino, which means it was insane. He led the league in everything. He threw for 44 touchdown passes. The second place finisher in that category was Ken O’Brien with 25. Here’s a video of all of Dan Marino’s touchdown passes in 1986. It’s hypnotic. The colors. The face. The vibes. All of them are so good. Watch the ball coming out of his hands, and it doesn’t even look like a thrown object. It looks like it was added in afterwards with special effects:

Marino was just … transcendent. And I mean that in the most corny, cliched way possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that draws us to sports lately, even as the pro and college leagues become increasingly  cynical businesses, even as everything gets shinier and more corporate and the actual playing of the game is covered in layers and layers of brands and commercials and takes and all that stuff. I think this video is an example of why we still come back. Or at least I do. 

From a young age, I was taught that the Dolphins were my favorite football team, and that Dan Marino was my favorite football player. And why wouldn’t they be? And why, specifically, wouldn’t he be? The Rams and Raiders left LA when I was still pretty young. The Dolphins were cool. 

We used to go to Miami all the time to visit my grandparents. Usually we stayed with them, but they didn’t have a huge house, and sometimes, with brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles, there could be like a dozen of us in town at once. So sometimes we stayed in a hotel, and made a vacation of it. One year we stayed in a hotel called the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale. I remember the name because this was where I met Dan Marino. 

It must have been the mid-90s. Post Ace Ventura. Peak of my fandom. It must have been summer, because I remember that I had been bugging my parents to take me to a Dolphins practice -- which, now that I’m a parent myself, I can appreciate was an insane request in the heat of Florida summer. Somebody at the hotel must have overheard one of these conversations, because I was finishing a cheeseburger at the little poolside restaurant with my mom, and a hotel staffer came up to us and said, under his breath, ahem, Dan Marino is down on the beach right now. 

I took off sprinting. And as I remember it, the beach was almost  totally empty. There was another hotel staffer wearing all white. There was a random tourist in one of those floppy hats. And there, in a tank top, unloading jetskis from a trailer that was somehow on the sand, was Dan fucking Marino. My mom came running up behind me holding a piece of paper and a pen. 

It all happened very fast. But I remember that first of all, Dan Marino was very nice. He signed my autograph. I remember that second of all, he asked if I wanted a picture. We didn’t have a camera. I was heartbroken. But the other guy -- the tourist in the floppy hat -- he had one. Because this was the pre-digital age, he offered to take a photo and mail it to us. 

We exchanged addresses. He took the picture. Dan Marino loaded his jet ski into the ocean, and he disappeared to frolic among literal dolphins (I presume.) This is where the story should end. But it isn’t where the story ends. 

Months went by. For a while, I was excited to see my picture with Dan Marino. But then I forgot about it. I was a kid, after all. I had other stuff on my mind. I still had the memory.  That was enough. I could play NFL Blitz, and throw touchdowns to OJ McDuffie, and remember how I met #13 on the beach. 

Then, about a year later, a big envelope showed up at my parents’ house addressed to me. The return address was in New York, which was weird. I didn’t know anybody in New York. A big envelope from a stranger is not the kind of thing a kid would normally get in the mail. 

I opened it with my mom. The first thing we pulled out was a letter that turned out to be from the tourist on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, the man who took my picture with Dan Marino. He wrote to apologize. None of his photos from the trip had turned out. This was the kind of thing that could happen at the time. It was a disappointment, but it was no big deal. 

What followed, however, was a big deal. Feeling guilty about his pictures not coming out, this kind stranger had written a personal note to Dan Marino explaining the situation. And amazingly enough,  Marino actually wrote back to the guy. He a signed personalized 8x10 photo and mailed it back to the stranger in New York. And now the stranger, this kind, random man, had sent it along to California. It’s still on the wall in my old bedroom in LA. The glossy photo of Marino with his arm cocked back, with the black sharpie lines across the middle. 

“Best Wishes, Eric

Dan Marino #13” 

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Related Reading

Not a lot of related reading here, but I’ll give some updates.

First of all, I wrote a book -- and Adam did the illustrations for it. It’s called STEALING HOME: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between. I can safely say we’re both proud, and both excited about it. The book doesn’t come out until March, and you can expect to hear a lot more about it in this newsletter in the months to come, but you can win a free copy right now on Goodreads by entering this contest

Stealing Home

And if you want to preorder it, you can do so at your favorite online or in-person bookstore.  (Book IOUs make great holiday gifts.) 

Second of all, while down in a rabbit hole of Dan Marino highlights I came across this super random video from NFL Network where Alex Rodriguez talks about his love of Marino, and how he chose #13 with the Yankees in honor of the quarterback.

Third of all, if by some chance you are the person who took that photo in Miami, and then wrote to Dan Marino, and then mailed me his autograph, please get in touch so I can thank you personally. If you know that person, please pass along this newsletter.


This has been Vol. 12 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

Sports Stories is 100 percent free. If you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and want to show your appreciation, the best way to do that would be to sign up, share it on social media, or forward it to someone you think might enjoy it too.

 

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