Paula Milnes admits her mind was taken back to the Azteca Stadium almost half a century earlier when she attended England’s World Cup semi-final against the United States on Tuesday.
Milnes was a member of the unofficial England side that took part in a non-FIFA Women’s World Cup in Mexico in 1971.
They played three times at the Azteca Stadium, including against the hosts in front of a crowd said to be around 90,000.
Milnes – a 15-year-old winger known as Paula Rayner at the time, who scored in their opener against Argentina – and her 1971 team-mates have recently been reunited.
And, through UEFA’s Together #WePlayStrong campaign, 11 of the 14-player squad were among the 53,512 attendance at Groupama Stadium on Tuesday.
Milnes told PA: “It’s like we hadn’t been apart for 48 years – we all just gelled together. And to have the opportunity to come over here and watch England play in that semi-final was fantastic.
“The atmosphere was great and seeing the crowds as big as they were, it brought back the memories of stepping out and seeing that big crowd (in Mexico).
“And I thought ‘yes, we’re moving forward now’. Women’s football has really taken off now, and let’s continue it that way.”
At the time that the team managed by Harry Batt went to Mexico, women’s football in England had been effectively banned for the past 50 years.
When they returned, Batt and his players – with the side not recognised by the recently-formed Women’s Football Association – were handed individual bans and the group lost touch.
The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was in 1991 and England made their debut appearance in 1995. Tuesday’s match, which they lost 2-1, was their third-successive major tournament semi-final.
As well as a big crowd in the stadium in Mexico City, the players in the 1971 campaign – which saw losses to Argentina (4-1) and Mexico (4-0), a day later followed by a 3-2 defeat against France – experienced a feeling of celebrity status.
Jan Emms, scorer of both goals against France, said: “We were used to playing on a park pitch in Luton in front of one man and his dog.
“We went out to Mexico and for some reason the Mexicans took us to their hearts. They absolutely loved us.
“We were in a fabulous hotel where the men’s team had stayed the year before, we had police escorts wherever we went, we had hundreds waiting outside the hotel, ‘can we have an autograph, can we have a photo taken with us’. They really loved us and looked after us.
“I remember vividly going to the stadium in the coach, we arrived and it was a ‘wow’ moment, the Azteca Stadium.
“The changing rooms were underground, and we all got changed and then we walked up the slope and out onto the pitch to this cauldron of noise, the heat and the sun and the noise. I remember looking around and thinking ‘wow’.
“And it gets to the Mexico game, there are 90,000, 95,000 people there, and I’m thinking ‘I’m just this 19-year-old kid from Bedford – what am I doing out here’? That was a wow moment.”
Emms – then known as Jan Barton, and playing centre-forward – added: “We came back and we really thought this was going to be the beginning of women’s football.
“Harry Batt was way ahead of his time, he envisaged how women’s football would be, but he was laughed at. And when we came back, there was nothing.
“We all got banned – I got a six-month ban, Harry got a life ban, which was really sad for him. And so it all fell flat. It was such an anticlimax.”
Work towards a reunion of the squad was started in 2018 by three of the players in Chris Lockwood, Leah Caleb and Gillian Sayell.
Emms describes getting back together with her old team-mates as “very emotional”.
And she said of Tuesday’s match: “If we’re all honest, we were very envious, wishing we were down there playing instead of watching!
“But it was a wonderful moment, and we are so proud of the girls and so happy for them, to have that opportunity.
“We started it all off, we were the pioneers, the trailblazers if you like, but now it’s progressed and this is happening, and it’s wonderful.”
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