Women’s World Cup game-changing moments No 2: Denmark in 1971

A hat-trick by 15-year-old Susanne Augustesen saw the Danes beat hosts Mexico in the final in front of 100,000 fans at the Azteca Stadium

In 1968 Mexico City hosted the Olympic Games; in 1970 Mexico staged the men’s World Cup; and in 1971 the country hosted a third major event by welcoming the unofficial Women’s World Cup, an event that the enthusiastic locals had high hopes of winning. Instead, Mexico were beaten in the final thanks to a hat-trick that they had not anticipated - three goals by Denmark’s 15-year-old forward, Susanne Augustesen.

“There were over 100,000 people in the Azteca Stadium and when we walked out, the shouting and drumming was so loud that we couldn’t even hear each other when we tried to talk,” recalls Birte Kjems, Denmark’s goalkeeper. “But after Susanne’s third goal we heard something very strange: applause from the home crowd. People told us afterwards that that was one of the first times they had heard fans in the Azteca applaud the opposition.” Mexican fans, who a year earlier had been wowed by Pele and Carlos Alberto, knew quality play when they saw it and were happy to show their appreciation. It was all quite different to what Kjems was used to - and to what followed for Denmark’s world champions.

“At my club [Ribe], we would normally have 50 to 100 spectators, maybe 300 for a very important match,” says Kjems. “So the World Cup made us nervous and excited. Even for the first match [a 3-0 win over France in Guadalajara], there was something like 40,000 people in the stadium. And the atmosphere around the country was amazing. It was like, ‘we’ve had the Olympics and the men’s World Cup, now here come the women so let’s make a big party for them, too.’ It was quite a new world. There was something in the papers about women’s football every day and everywhere we went people wanted photographs and autographs. You could never just walk out to a shop because there were big crowds waiting for us around the hotel.”

Denmark had arrived as the No 1 team thanks to their victory in the inaugural edition of the tournament in Italy in 1970. But this was a very different team, as the side that had triumphed the previous year had been made up of players from one club, Boldklubben Femina. For the 1971 competition the Kvindelig Fodbold Union (Danish Women’s Football Union, which was set up because the country’s Uefa-backed union, the DBU, would not admit women), decided to form a truly national team. They held trials across the country to select a squad. Helene Hansen, scorer of one of the goals in the 2-0 victory over Italy in the 1970 final, was the only player to appear for Denmark in both tournaments.

As for the first tournament, travel and accommodation were covered by the sponsors, the Italian drinks company Martini & Rossi. The solidarity between the competitors was such that when the Danish team bus broke down in the desert on the way from the capital to Guadalajara, the Italian team picked them up and the sides travelled on together. They met again in their final group game, sharing a 1-1 draw that enabled both to progress to the semi-finals. Denmark trounced Argentina 5-0 but Italy were knocked out by the host nation.

“Apparently they were very bad losers,” says Kjems. “They had been very aggressive during the match and afterwards they smashed up mirrors and toilets in the dressing rooms and everything.” Italy recovered their composure sufficiently to win the third-place playoff, while Denmark won the tournament – and the admiration of the Azteca crowd – with a 3-0 triumph over Mexico in the final. As a promotional gimmick, pink and white hoops had been painted on the goalpost for the tournament and all stadium staff wore pink uniforms. Naturally, then, there was only one way for the Danes to celebrate their victory. “We had a bath in pink champagne!” recalls Kjems. “I don’t know where it came from, I didn’t even know pink champagne existed, but there was lots of it after the final!”

Denmark flew home as the two-times world champions. “Ordinary people were very excited but not the official men,” says Kjems. “On the day we landed the head of the DBU [Vilhelm Skousen] said there would never be women members of the Danish Football Union during his lifetime. Oh hello, welcome home!”

Susanne Augustesen, centre, scores Denmark’s - and her - first goal goal against Mexico in the final at the Azteca Stadium
Susanne Augustesen, centre, scores Denmark’s - and her - first goal goal against Mexico in the final at the Azteca Stadium. Photograph: Ritzau/Press Association Images

Skousen was one of many influential men who insisted the interest of Denmark’s public and media in women’s football was a fad. “We cannot and will not take this seriously in the DBU,” he said.

But the decision was taken out of his hands when Uefa ruled that member associations had to open their doors to women. The DBU did so in 1972. But only half-heartedly and in a way that undid much of the good development work women had done for themselves. “They said to us ‘your tournament and national league is a no-go’,” says Kjems. “They wouldn’t take our system, instead it was ‘You have to start from scratch, we have to see if you are really serious about playing football’. They could have built on our way of doing things but they said ‘no, no, we have to do it the men’s way.’

“We had a tournament all over the country but now we had to start from level zero with small local teams. We were winning matches 9-0 so it was very boring, especially for me as a goalkeeper. And at the national team we were no longer allowed to play in unofficial tournaments, only against nations whose women’s team had official status. So for years we could only really play against Nordic teams. I and other players lost some of our best football years because men insisted on doing things their way and weren’t quick enough about it. So I think, even now, it is very important for women do stand up and do things for themselves. Don’t wait for men to do it for you.”

The memory of Denmark’s double world champions soon faded, even in their own country. So there there was widespread surprise when the film-maker Jakob Thygesen told their story in a 2017 documentary.

Augustesen, who was never given an official cap after her hat-trick despite going on to enjoy a successful career in Italy in which she scored over 600 goals, was admitted into the DBU’s Hall of Fame two years go. But given the way the legacy of Denmark’s world champions was, to a large extent, squandered, it is perhaps fitting that their trophy remains missing. “It was a beautiful trophy, an angel standing on top of a football, but no one knows where it is,” says Kjems. “We know it made it back into the country because there are pictures of us with it at Copenhagen airport but that is all we know. After the renewed interest in our story there were appeals and media ads looking for it, but so far it has not turned up. But we still have wonderful memories of what we did.”