The Beautiful Game on Netflix, screengrab via YouTube.

If you’ve never heard of the Homeless World Cup, you might not be alone. 

The international soccer tournament features teams of unhoused people from around the world. The problem of homelessness has only increased since the pandemic with over 150 million affected globally. The Homeless World Cup aims to tackle the problem with a mission statement “to support and inspire people who are homeless to change their own lives; and to change perceptions and attitudes towards people who are experiencing homelessness.”

So, how do you make a sports comedy-drama about such a weighty topic? There are unique challenges of trying to be entertaining while also being sensitive. People become homeless for various reasons. Unemployment, mental illness, and addiction are just some of the possible causes.

You want the movie to be funny but don’t want your characters to be the butt of the joke. The Beautiful Game scores by treating the subject with care while making you smile and cheer. A combination of real-life stories of the participants inspired the plot.

At the heart of this story, is the relationship between a coach (Mal played by Bill Nighy) and a player (Vinny played by Micheal Ward). We have seen this type of pairing before. The old-school taskmaster who embraces the team philosophy trying to mold a hotshot talent who stubbornly wants to do things his way. Thankfully, director Thea Sharrock never lets the film feel like a regurgitation of past movies.

The Beautiful Game is more grounded than traditional Hollywood sports fare. A large reason for that is the performance of the two leads. Nighy makes everything better, whether it’s a comedy, drama, or a music video. There’s a reason why he’s one of the most beloved British actors of his generation. And at 74, he’s doing some of his finest work.

In The Beautiful Game, he instinctively strikes the right tone—and the tone becomes very important when you’re making a movie about the homeless. Nighy’s Mal cares deeply for his players and understands their struggles, particularly Vinny. The reason behind his interest in Vinny is revealed later in the film.

When Mal recruits Vinny to go to Rome for the Homeless World Cup, he explains “Every player has a story to tell. Heartbreaking, unexpected, thrilling stories. And they tell those stories in one great universal language. And that’s football.”

Vinny, of course, is skeptical.

You might remember Ward from his role in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, working opposite Olivia Colman. He’s a thoughtful actor who brings great spirit to his characters. In The Beautiful Game, he plays Vinny as someone filled with disappointment at what his life should have been but there’s also an element of mystery to him. When the audience discovers more, we reevaluate our opinion of Vinny.

Those are the best kind of characters.

The Beautiful Game isn’t flawless. There’s a clunky romantic subplot that is unnecessary and mishandled. Also, there are times when you wish the story went deeper to explore some of the other players.

There is no denying, however, that The Beautiful Game on Netflix accomplishes its goal. It will make you think twice about how we perceive the homeless. 

To donate to the Homeless World Cup Foundation, visit here

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.