Emma Donnelly strikes out at Netflix Feel Good Film, The Beautiful Game.

Delivering a socially conscious twist to the classic underdog sports film formula, The Beautiful Game is inspired by the true, heartbreaking and life-affirming stories of the players of the Homeless World Cup. 

In this dramatised offering from Netflix, retired professional manager Mal (Bill Nighy) scouts talented ex-star Vinny (Micheal Ward) to represent England at the Homeless World Cup in Italy. Estranged from his wife and young child, Vinny refuses to join this team of misfits. In fact, he’s insulted at the prospect, refusing to believe he qualifies for the same league as goalkeeper and gambling addict Kevin (Tom Vaughan Lawlor); recovering heroin user Nathan (Callum Scott Howells) or autistic, Kurdish barber Aldar (Robin Nazari). Yet Vinny spends his long nights sleeping in his car, and can’t support his estranged family, fiscally or emotionally. Eventually, the lure of the pitch proves impossible to resist, and he joins the team in Rome. As the competition commences, these men are introduced to a warm, world wide community of organisers and players. Team England faces off against other nations – with varying degrees of success – and each player learns an important life lesson along the way. 

Much like its precursor Ted Lasso, who elevated the genre of feelgood football to prime time status on the small screen, The Beautiful Game uses the lightness of comedy and the familiar tropes of an underdog team to work through rather dark subject matter. This film is not so much an ensemble, as an observation of the entire makeup of the tournament. We’re introduced to an array of characters from across the globe: Rosita (Cristina Rodlo), an  American “Dreamer” fighting to become a citizen of the US; or Mika (Aoi Okuyama) an overenthusiastic young Japanese girl leading a team of older men; or Protasia (Susan Wokoma), a passionate nun advocating for her South African players. 

An earlier version of this project had Brendan Gleesan and Colin Farrell attached, which might have yielded a rather different tone. Despite playing out a well-worn structure, the uniqueness in the voice of Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing cuts through the coarser cliches. The production worked closely with the Homeless World Cup Foundation, and there’s a painful truthfulness that permeates those saccharine moments. Cottrell-Boyce met many participants in the Homeless World Cup and created the characters in the film out of a composite of their real stories. An original iteration of the film was set to kick off in 2012, so this meant he spent eleven years with the subject matter. 

The plot isn’t as blindly predictable as one might expect, and as the characters warmly bicker and banter, their issues carry real weight – that pay off in the second half. Yet, the core theme dribbles towards redemption, making this a satisfyingly enough watch deserving of a participation trophy at the very least. 

The Beautiful Game is available to watch on Netflix now. 


Gemma Creagh is a writer, filmmaker and journalist. In 2014 she graduated with a First from NUIG’s MA Writing programme. Gemma’s play Spoiling Sunset was staged in Galway as part of the Jerome Hynes One Act Play series in 2014. Gemma was one of eight playwrights selected for AboutFACE’s 2021 Transatlantic Tales and is presently developing a play with the Axis Theatre and with the support of the Arts Council. She has been commissioned to submit a play by Voyeur Theatre to potentially be performed in Summer 2023 as part of the local arts festival. Gemma was the writer and co-producer of the five-part comedy Rental Boys for RTÉ’s Storyland. She has gone on to write, direct and produce shorts which screened at festivals around the world. She was commissioned to direct the short film, After You, by Filmbase and TBCT. Gemma has penned articles for magazines, industry websites and national newspapers, she’s the assistant editor for Film Ireland and she contributes reviews to RTE Radio One’s Arena on occasion.

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