The newspaper headlines of 1971 capture what women have been up against in their attempt to claim football is a game for them, too. An English side had just competed for the first time in a World Cup and returned to find one national title telling its readers: ‘Don’t laugh – one day there may be a female Arsenal.’
This was extraordinary, even by the standards of days in which the commentary for a Pathe film featuring the Italian women’s preparations for an Olympics described how ‘the robust signorinas are really putting plenty of shapely Italian beef into it.’
Extraordinary because the English side who had competed in the unofficial women’s event found themselves playing in front of 90,000 people at the Azteca Stadium and commanded such extraordinary acclaim that they signed autographs everywhere they went and required a constant police escort.
The women’s game has come a long way since the sport was deemed ‘unsuitable for females’
It was an utterly improbably outcome, given that women had been banned from playing football on the pitches of FA-registered clubs since 1921, on the grounds that the sport was ‘quite unsuitable for females.’ The FA also claimed – in what was almost certainly a fabricated excuse – that some takings from charity matches weren’t reaching their intended causes.
It didn’t stop a chain-smoking bus driver, linguist and football maverick Harry Batt establishing the Chiltern Valley women’s team with his wife June, having seen interest balloon in the aftermath of 1966.
Batt was part of the first Women’s Football Association but as the game’s governing bodies dithered over whether a World Cup was entirely appropriate, he led a side comprising many of his own club’s players to the unofficial 1971 tournament in Mexico, which was financed by a group of Italian businessmen.
Only two of the 14-strong squad were over 20 and the youngest, Leah Caleb, a mere 13, requiring the Batts’ help to persuade her parents that she should go. ‘I’m forever grateful to them because it was a brave thing in those days,’ she says.
Mexico hosted the women’s tournament and Harry Batt took an England team
The young squad were greeted by a battery of photographers and became known as ‘las chicas de Carnaby Street’ after touching down on a flight via New York.
They wore squad uniforms of white crimplene skirts, white blouses and checked blazers and are still not sure why they assumed cult status at a tournament in which six nations competed.
Chris Lockwood, another of the 14, puts it down to their approachability.
‘We were down to earth and they liked that,’ she told the BBC this week. Leah mentions the glamour England seemed to hold for Latin American nations.
It meant a crowd of 25,000 for England’s first game against Argentina – whom Phil Neville’s side meet in their imminent World Cup group stage in France – and a bruising 4-1 defeat. ‘We tried to play clean English football, but things didn’t go to plan,’ fulminated Batt. ‘The girls were hacked to pieces. It was absolutely diabolical. They came after our blood.’
An estimated 90,000 saw England play Mexico in the Azteca and go down 4-1, exiting the tournament. Denmark beat Mexico 3-0 in the final, with 15-year-old
There were enormous crowds watching the unofficial 1971 tournament in Mexico
Susanne Augustesen completing a hat-trick in front of a 100,000- strong crowd.
It wasn’t the first time a team of Englishwomen had drawn huge numbers. On Boxing Day 1920, the Dick, Kerr Ladies team drew a crowd of 53,000 to Goodison Park in a match for war charities. Women’s teams had filled the void when the domestic programme was abandoned during the First World War. But for Batt and his players there was only ignominy.
The manager found himself blacklisted and his Chiltern Valley club effectively shut down by the Women’s FA for ‘illegally’ fielding an England team at a time when the organisation was supposedly trying to assemble its own national side. It was actually the Mexican media who ascribed the ‘Inglaterra’ title to a side who went by the name ‘British Independents’ to keep the game’s authorities happy.