REVIEW: The Beautiful Game — a feel-good football movie with a serious theme

By Rachel Lilburn

What happens to the players who don’t make it to the pro ranks?

Where do they end up, those kids who are sucked in by the machine that is the English Football Academy system, then spat out again a few years later?

Shining a light on the story of one such player is one of the serious threads running through The Beautiful Game, a feel-good movie playing on Netflix.

Director Thea Sharrock, writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and editor Fernando Stutz have crafted a lighthearted movie that tackles the serious themes of homelessness and addiction.

It’s a movie about second chances, teamwork, finding yourself and taking pride in what you achieve instead of dwelling on what you might not have done.

But most of all, it’s a message that being alone isn’t being strong; that strength comes from connection with others.

The team heads to Rome for the Homeless World Cup. Image: Netflix.

The film introduces us to Mal — played by the brilliant Bill Nighy — who manages a football team of homeless men who head to Rome to represent England in the Homeless World Cup (a real event, that started in 2003).

He persuades down-on-his-luck footballer Vinny (Michael Ward) to join the team.

Vinny’s rough edges and ego don’t make him a likeable character, but are also hiding huge insecurities. He struggles to be part of the team, who he sees as homeless losers. Each of the team has a backstory that’s led them to homelessness, with personal demons that they need to manage or overcome.

Being a teammate means accepting that he is just like his teammates, or indeed, that his teammates are just like him — some with bad luck, some with some bad decisions, but no one has planned to be homeless.

Mal and his players … Image: Netflix.

Vinny has internalized the negative messages he received from others, believing he’s not good enough.

Rooming with Nathan, a kind-hearted addict who looks up to him, Vinny’s words have a profound impact. Vinny tells Nathan that “real athletes don’t take drugs”; leading to Nathan not taking his methadone, then spiralling out of control.

As Nathan returns to England, Vinny is left grappling with the influence of his words on others.

While we spend more time with Vinny, the star of the movie is undoubtably Mal, the coach who is ambitious, excitable and emotional about football (he’s shown a red card in the first game); and equally emotionally tender as a leader of men with personal demons.

Mal plays a calming role, supporting others while respecting their autonomy. He understands that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own choices.

We’re left wondering about Mal’s backstory and motivations. How did he join the Homeless World Cup, and why has he stuck with it for 12 years? What’s happened to his wife and when?

By not showing us the back story, we are reminded to show compassion even without fully understanding others’ pasts.

Mal’s story in the film also highlights another sobering aspect of football: the weight of responsibility carried by coaches and scouts who select and then potentially reject young, aspiring elite players.

This can profoundly alter lives both for those who take it to the top professional leagues, and those who are ultimately knocked down by the system.

In other areas, the film resorts to somewhat shallow caricatures, particularly with the Japanese and South African teams, portraying them using simplified and not entirely accurate stereotypes.

The inclusion of an all-female team in an otherwise male competition seemed a little contrived and perhaps included to introduce a small romantic subplot.

The football itself — while not getting a huge amount of screen time — is 4v4, street style, and in true football-movie style, is much better than the initial training montage we see.

Overall, this was an enjoyable, feel-good watch.

I enjoyed this with my 11-year-old, who missed most of the more subtle elements, but the movie provided me with the opportunity to open some new discussions.

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Rachel Lilburn

Taupō-based Rachel Lilburn is the mother of a football-mad youngster, a team manager and volunteer. She writes for Friends of Football, specialising in feature stories about young footballers, their pathways and junior/youth tournaments.

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