The Beautiful Game: A Story Inspired by the Homeless World Cup

Bill Nighy in The Beautiful Game (Netflix)

Director Thea Sharrock and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce offer this gentle film inspired by an annual soccer event born in 1999 that most of us have never heard of. The Beautiful Game is a fictional adventure based on a real tournament that draws teams from almost 70 countries. And the film’s title is the worldwide nickname for the international sport of football, or as we Americans call it, soccer. Used by fans, players, and commentators worldwide, the term “the beautiful game” conveys appreciation for the players’ range of skills for vigilant goalkeeping, proficient passing, and a solid defense.

The tournament favors the looser rules of street soccer instead of the conventional game, probably because the universal street version is the game that teams are most familiar with. The other feature the participants share is being part of a particular demographic: the homeless. This film is about the annual Homeless World Cup Tournament, and the cast includes some actual participants from previous competitions. Let the games begin.

This quiet tale delivers a story within a story. The tournament organizers aspire to a bigger victory beyond the game. The more ambitious goal is elevating hundreds of homeless lives that need a reboot. Team sports are a potent Rx for making friends and for gaining confidence, motivation, and inspiration. So whether the team wins or loses, participation in the tournament is a boost that delivers its own rewards.

Micheal Ward and Bill Nighy in The Beautiful Game (Netflix)

Front and center we meet the British team and their coach, Mal, played by Bill Nighy. Mal is a widower who welcomes meaningful projects that brighten his life. And managing this British team is a natural transition from his previous occupation as a soccer scout. In the process of competing for trophies, Mal wants the team to feel the strength of the group instead of feeling alone.

Vinny (Micheal Ward) is a new member of Mal’s team, and a focus of the story. Vinny developed exceptional soccer skills in his youth, which is when Mal first noticed his fluid footwork. But after Vinny’s sports aspirations hit a wall, devastation overtook his life. Vinny is a private person, to the point of isolation, and he maintains a protective facade of superiority. Mal convinces Vinny, who lives in his car, to join the team for the tournament, which is being hosted in Rome. Vinny joins the team but he holds fast to his solitude.

The Beautiful Game (Netflix)

Most of all, Vinny feels humiliated by an event whose name includes the word “homeless.” And I agree. The compassionate, charitable organizers of this event might want to consider a more respectful and uplifting title for the tournament, to honor the people it so generously serves.

On the other hand, I admire that somebody thought of organizing a constructive event for people who need nourishing attention, while the “civilized” population just wants them to move their tents. Although there is no panacea for poverty or homelessness, this tournament feels like a dose of positivity for a worthy cause. Streaming on Netflix, The Beautiful Game is food for the heart and soul.