Pride, mockery and regret: The story of England's forgotten World Cup captain

Carol Wilson, right, captained England in the 1971 World Cup in Mexico. Credit: Carol Wilson

Carol Wilson was just 19 when she captained England at the 1971 World Cup.

The team received a hero's welcome at the tournament in Mexico with hundreds of thousands of people attending games.

However, on return to England the team were mocked and some received bans from the Football Association.

The tournament is now the subject of a new documentary film, Copa 71, covering the positive reaction the World Cup had in Mexico but also the issues players and organisers faced both before and after.

Carol hopes seeing the struggle the team had to go through will help inspire the future generation.

Her own route into football was fraught with barriers. She fell in love with the sport as a youngster, playing with her dad and becoming a devoted Newcastle United fan after first mistaking cheers celebrating a goal at St James' Park for a plane going directly overhead.

However, it was not until she joined the RAF as a physical training (PT) instructor after leaving school that she was able to get any kind of semi-competitive experience with women's football largely banned.

Carol (bottom right) during her days in the RAF. Credit: Carol Wilson

"Apart from kicking a ball around with my dad, I thought when we first got to the big school I would be able to play football," she explained.

"It was one of the first to have every sports facility and had masses of playing fields but I was never given the chance and I was quite downhearted.

"I went into the RAF and thought oh great, I'll get to play football - not a chance. But the only time I did get to play was with the rest of the PT staff on my station where we could play five-a-side against other departments at lunchtime."

It was these five-a-side sessions that changed her life when she caught the eye of Harry Batt, who was trying to set up an England women's team.

Harry Batt is considered to be one of women's football's great visionaries. Credit: New Black Films/Mirrorpix/Marina Amaral

"One lunchtime I was playing and I thought who is that nosey so and so next door?" Carol recalled. "He was looking at me and watching what I was up to. He came across and started watching our game and it turned out that was Harry Batt.

"He was a visionary who knew girl's football was going to become a thing.

"He asked me to come for a trial and I went over to Luton and played for his local team for a few months. A real game - I couldn't believe it!"

Batt continued to pressure the FA to allow him to form an official England team but it could not gain approval. He ended up starting one off on his own, calling the side the British Independents.

He asked Carol to join and they travelled to Sicily to face Austria and the Sicilians for their first games. The prospect of going to the World Cup in Mexico was raised but funding was an issue until Italian alcohol brand Martini & Rossi stepped in to pay for flights and accommodation.

It was after this news that Carol was made captain after one of the players lost her finger in a freak training accident. Batt wanted her to use her PT background to help the team get fit for the tournament with the high altitude of Mexico City expected to cause problems as it had during the men's World Cup a year earlier.

Carol helped train the team before the tournament. Credit: New Black Films/Mirrorpix/Marina Amaral

The squad arrived in Mexico expecting little fanfare but they could not have been more wrong.

"We got off the plane and there was masses and masses of lights," Carol explained. "I'd seen videos of The Beatles getting off at Heathrow Airport and it was just like that.

"My friend said to me 'there must be someone really important on the plane' but all the photographers were there for us.

"When we came out of the airport people were lining the banks of the dual carriageway and we needed a police escort to take us to our hotel.

"We were really proud. From the minute we stepped off the plane we were never called British Independents, we were England!"

The team were beaten 4-1 in the first game of the tournament against a combative Argentinian side. Carol broke a bone in her foot during the encounter but played through it - determined not to miss out on the opportunity to play the hosts.

Carol captained England in both games despite breaking a bone in her foot against Argentina. Credit: Carol Wilson

They were beaten 4-0 in the famous Azteca Stadium and were knocked out of the competition. However, they had won the hearts of the Mexican people with a mystery benefactor, thought to be a group of locals, paying for the team to continue their stay until after the final had been played.

Yet, their return to England could not have been much further from the treatment they had received in Mexico.

"When we got back to England there was no jubilation, there was just nothing," Carol said. "I think there was one photographer at the airport."

The tournament continued to receive very little coverage despite the team's return. Anything that did make the papers was often riddled with errors.

"We've had quite a bit of journalism from this country that was not very good," Carol explained. "They got all the facts wrong but in the Mexican papers and the French papers, we were all over the place.

"Not that we wanted that. We just wanted to play football but it did it just started to give us that little bit of resentment towards how we were being treated."

The team received a rapturous reception in Mexico but the response in England was less positive. Credit: New Black Films/Mirrorpix/Marina Amaral

Things came to a head when Carol was invited to attend a Newcastle United dinner, earning the chance to meet the squad.

She attended along with her father, the man who had sparked her love for football, but the evening did not go as she hoped.

"I got a call asking if I would like to come to a Newcastle United dinner - like I was ever going to turn that down," she said. "I asked my dad to come, and he wasn't a very social man, but he was dead proud of me and said 'of course I'll go'.

"Around halfway through the night, I was called up to the stage. At first, the presenter was really nice but then he picked on the World Cup.

"'Ahh football, you play football' he said. 'Well, I guess it was a real bun fight. Were you all stood in the corner scrambling for the ball?' I thought 'this guy is just taking the mick'.

"I came off the stage and I thought that's it, I'm finished with football and I didn't play it again for the rest of my life.

"I regret that. I wish I'd come off my high horse and thought, 'You know what? It's not about them. It's about us,' but I was hot-headed. I was still young and that's how it turned out."

It was not until 2018 that Carol felt able to publicly talk about the tournament again. The squad reunited to remember their achievements with many considering them to be 'the lost Lionesses'.

Carol now looks back on the experience with pride after creating lifelong memories along with her team. Credit: Dogwoof/Copa71

"I am really happy and proud," she recalled looking back on the team's experience. "I've got so many good memories of Mexico. We got up to all sorts [laughs]. It was great and they will stay with me.

"The happiest memory for me is they made a cake for us in the hotel and we were in the same hotel as the men were in the year before. It said you may have lost the games but you have won the hearts of the Mexican people.

"Everywhere we went, losing or not, we were just mobbed. It was amazing to say we had won our games and we were still revered. I'll never forget that."

The Copa71 documentary now offers a chance for the team's story to be retold alongside the other nations from the competition.

Both Serena and Venus Williams worked as producers on the film, with the latter narrating the opening scenes. It entered cinemas on 8 March and will be shown to schoolchildren.

Carol hopes it will continue the process of inspiring the next generation after the Lionesses' recent success, showing the struggles of those who have come before them.

"It will be great when youngsters see it," Carol said. "If there's any young footballers out there it just gives them that little bit of spark because they can see us do that. They can see almost that middle step as they can see now that the girls did it but you can't see the struggles they had in the first place.

"With the documentary, seeing those struggles it might just give inspiration to the youngsters and get them saying 'yes we can do this'."

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