How the Netflix Drama The Beautiful Game was Inspired by the Homeless World Cup Soccer Tournament

The Beautiful Game is a fictional movie about the very real Homeless World Cup soccer tournament, which for two decades, has brought together hundreds of people for a global tournament. Starring Bill Nighy as a grieving widower who throws himself into coaching as a way to gain meaning from his life, the film, out March 29, aims to kickstart awareness about the real tournament and change viewers’ perceptions of the homeless and people experiencing homelessness.

In the film, Mal (Nighy) is a longtime coach of homeless English soccer players. The players he coaches see the Homeless World Cup tournament as an opportunity. The people who participate in the tournament have experienced homelessness, are in recovery, or are asylum seekers. For example, one English player named Nathan (Callum Scott Howells) is a heroin addict whose mother has been told not to speak to him anymore. Another, Cal, (Kit Young) left his child home alone for 48 hours while he went on a bender. During the tournament, there’s one meet-cute to follow, as Jason (Sheyi Cole) on the English team has a crush on a female American player Rosita (Cristina Rodlo) and the two go on a running date to stay in shape for the games.

The filmmakers also cast real Homeless World Cup alums who play for the American team. Among them is Lisa Wrightsman, who coached the American team at the first U.S. Homeless World Cup in Sacramento in 2023 and played in the tournament in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. Sporting a #3 jersey, she was one of the extras on the U.S. team, which scores a goal towards the end in a match against the English team for third place.

Wrightsman said she related most to the English player Vinny (Micheal Ward), who Coach Mal scouts for the team at the beginning of the film, as he’s showing off his soccer skills to a group of kid soccer players. Just as Vinny once had a promising professional soccer career that fell through, Wrightsman played soccer at Sacramento State. When she lost her opportunity to play professionally, she couldn’t see another future in sight. She became addicted to drugs and alcohol, landing in jail when she hit rock bottom. While in a sober living facility, she met a case manager and a group of guys practicing for a Street Soccer USA tournament, backed by one of the social services organizations that refers players to the Homeless World Cup. She had a blast at the Rio Homeless World Cup, and ended up making a career out of teaching soccer to at-risk communities. Now she helps runs Sacramento chapter of Street Soccer USA, which introduces soccer to low-income youth.

Wrightsman hopes viewers will see the transformation that can happen when vulnerable people are given the right opportunities. As she describes what it felt like to be a player in the Homeless World Cup and how it gave her a new outlook on life: “We’re all terrified of dying, and we don’t want to be in trouble, but nobody really sees the future being exciting. You’re just like, I don’t want to die anymore. The Homeless World Cup gave me a vision of life [that] I’m excited about. And if this is the result of me being sober and doing good things, I’m going to do more of those things.”

An athlete that Wrightsman has sponsored in a recovery capacity also appears in The Beautiful Game: Angela Draws, who wears a #4 jersey in the film, can be seen playing soccer with the American team players and cheering enthusiastically on the sidelines. Draws met Wrightsman in a sober living facility when she was recovering from drug addiction, and Wrightsman tapped her to play. Draws had never played soccer outside of grade school, but she says it’s the reason why she hasn’t relapsed in 12 years. After competing in the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Santiago, Chile, she now works as a personal trainer in Sacramento.

Overall, she hopes the Netflix movie will inspire people to be nicer to the homeless and people recovering from addiction. “You never know the magic inside someone who’s sleeping on the street,” she says. You never know the beauty or potential that they have. We are not our circumstance. We are not the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

The next Homeless World Cup is scheduled for September 21-28 in Seoul, South Korea, featuring teams from 49 member countries.