Film

Bill Nighy: 'Footballers are physical geniuses creating passages of great beauty. It's fascinating'

New Netflix film The Beautiful Game not only underlines the redemptive power of football, it also shows that routes into homelessness are complex and varied

Bill Nighy as Mal in The Beautiful Game. Image: Netflix

It is early October 2021 and the Big Issue is in Haggerston, East London, where the final scene of The Beautiful Game is being filmed. The new Netflix film follows the England team, featuring rising stars Micheal Ward (Small Axe: Lovers Rock) and It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells – and their manager, Mal, played by Bill Nighy – to the Homeless World Cup in Italy. 

On our way to the football pitches of today’s location, we walk past St Chad’s church, where a large group of men and women are waiting for food at the community kitchen. The stories in the film may be fictional, but they are rooted in the very real housing and homelessness crisis that’s visible all around us. The Homeless World Cup is also real: dreamt up in a conversation between Big Issue in Scotland co-founder Mel Young and Harald Schmid, who ran a street paper in Graz, Austria.

Since the inaugural tournament in July 2003, it has offered life-changing inspiration and opportunity to people from 70 countries. And it’s needed now more than ever.  

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Out on the astroturf, Bill Nighy is in the centre circle. He’s surrounded by young players. Director Thea Sharrock marches over, issuing a final word of advice, before Nighy rolls a neat, side-foot pass to get the ball and the scene rolling. Nighy is not a tracksuit manager. Instead, he wears one of his own vast collection of Fred Perry shirts. 

Micheal Ward and Bill Nighy. Image: Alfredo Falvo / Netflix

“They’re retro ones, with the exploded logo,” he says. “I also wore my own Fred Perrys in a film called Sometimes, Always, Never, where I played an ancient mod. Honestly, it’s a full-blown fetish. Something about that logo goes straight to my heart.” 

But it wasn’t the chance to wear his favourite fashions that made Nighy sign up to The Beautiful Game.  

“It’s about something really fabulous and important,” he says, when we meet again in early March 2024, ahead of the film’s release. 

“Homelessness is a huge problem worldwide. And it’s one of those things where people don’t know what to do, because there’s such a variety of things that might render somebody homeless. 

“The Homeless World Cup is such a smart mechanism. An incredible enterprise that works on so many levels, in so many ways. It gives people a sense of community. They get to travel, possibly for the first time. And they get to meet hundreds of other people in a similar situation. It’s also administered by very responsible people who can help with whatever issue has rendered them homeless and do something about it. It’s got an enormous success rate.” 

The Beautiful Game was largely filmed in Italy. “They built the stadium in the middle of Rome,” says Nighy. “It was pretty impressive. We were hanging out all the time. I met people from all over the world. We had a very good time. But it was gruelling. That was as hot as I’ve ever been in my life. The Italian government warned people not to leave their homes. And the boys had to play football for hours in this intense heat.”  

Many of the supporting artists Bill Nighy was hanging out with had real-life experience of homelessness and playing at the Homeless World Cup. 

“One of the cool things about the movie is that a lot of the people that came to Italy to play the Japanese, American or German players had been through the Homeless World Cup system,” he continues.  

“So many people in the film had been homeless, were no longer homeless, and then had the opportunity to be part of the film. That was an incredibly satisfying development.” 

If the film’s hook is the redemptive power of football, it also shows that routes into homelessness are complex and varied. Ward plays England’s star player Vinny, drafted into the team by coach Mal on the eve of the tournament, despite being adamant that his situation – he is sleeping in his car – does not count as homelessness. It does, of course. A lesson learned by both the character and the actor playing him. 

Micheal Ward plays Vinny. Image: Alfredo Falvo / Netflix

“Homelessness, ultimately, is when you don’t have a home address,” says Ward, during a break in filming. “And that’s where Vinny is. He was nearly a professional footballer and didn’t make it after being so hopeful. He is working, he is trying to provide for his daughter. But he is living out of his car and he doesn’t want anyone to know. I never used to think about how someone who is homeless got into that situation. But making this film has taught me that everyone has a story.”  

Ward also brings genuine football talent to the role, which director and fellow Arsenal fan Sharrock captures.  

“This story is close to home for me. I used to play football at a decent level, but when I could see I wouldn’t make it as a footballer, it was hard to carry on playing,” says Ward.  

“I literally didn’t play football again until this movie. But training for the film, playing these last few weeks, seeing how it has impacted all these people’s lives, I have found that passion again.  

“It’s also about being part of a community. I’ve met people from Portugal, Mexico, South Africa, who have been to the Homeless World Cup and are now setting up their own football organisations. They’ve been helped by the community and now they’re helping their own community. It’s been a real blessing to see what football can do for people.” 

Cardiff City fan Callum Scott Howells, recent star of The Way, was surprised to find himself pulling on an England football shirt in his first major film role following the success of It’s a Sin. “I didn’t expect I’d ever do that,” he laughs, after practising keepy-uppies on the touchline. “But I’ve always wanted to be part of stories that mean something. When I read the script, I felt a need to be part of it. I worked hard to get the role. At school, I knew people who were homeless or were in foster care and struggling to find a place to call home.

Callum Scott Howells as Nathan. Image: Alfredo Falvo / Netflix

“The script felt visceral and close to home. I cried. There are aspects that say a lot about the time we live in. But more importantly, it says a lot about finding people you can call a family and finding a community you can call home. So, coming from It’s a Sin to this felt right. 

“These people are not just statistics or numbers. They are real. We have real Homeless World Cup players in the movie and we had the summer of our lives together. We truly bonded playing football together between takes.” 

To paint a picture of modern homelessness in a film that is both entertaining and heartwarming is testament to screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s skills. Come for the football or for Bill Nighy at his laconic best, but stay to learn more about the inspirational, transformational Homeless World Cup. 

“I don’t think even Mel Young who invented it understands the full power of the Homeless World Cup,” continues Scott Howells. “There’s real beauty in it. Football can get a bad press, but this sport ignites people. And for the people competing in the Homeless World Cup it gives them a family. They don’t just go home back to their old lives, they leave with something very profound. I spoke with a player called Lisa, who is in the film as part of the American team. Her life completely changed because of the Homeless World Cup.” 

Mel Young. Image: Alayah Quinn, Mile 44

After 20 years of changing lives through football, Mel Young does seem to understand its power. He watches the final scene alongside The Big Issue and does his best to sum up his mission.  

“Our whole drive is changing people’s lives,” he says. “It’s about impact. I have seen people, almost in front of my eyes, change their lives just by kicking a ball around. It is quite incredible.” 

For all the actors, this has been more than just another job. Even Nighy, whose storied career continues to scale new heights – including a first Best Actor Oscar nomination for what he dubs the “reckless restraint” of his performance in Living in 2023.  

“I try to do things that, however indirectly, might be of use in the world. Even if it’s just to entertain people,” says Nighy. “But to have a project like this, which is proper entertainment but also makes people aware of this fabulous project, the Homeless World Cup, and brings the issue to the front of people’s mind is a perfect combination.” 

In the film, coach Mal is a football devotee who has worked as a scout for West Ham and seen that the route out of poverty professional football has offered so many young people is not straightforward and never guaranteed. 

“He’s seen the flip side of football success, where young people get to a certain point and then no further. And he’s seen how much damage that can do to their lives,” says Nighy. “Somehow, he’s been attracted to the Homeless World Cup and it fits perfectly for him.  

“He’s also institutionalised in grief because he lost his wife. And that’s what underwrites everything in his life. There is a specific kind of loneliness that comes with the absence of that one person who, as they say, ‘completed you’. So maybe his involvement in the charity goes some way to alleviating that.” 

Ukraine’s goalkeeper deflects a shot by a Poland player at the real Homeless World Cup 2023, in Sacramento. Image: AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez

Bill Nighy makes sense as a music fan. As a rocker. We’ve all seen Love Actually and Still Crazy. It perhaps takes a bigger leap to imagine this elegant, wiry man of 74 as a football fan. But he is.  

“I’m a big, big football fan. But I’m not intensely tribal about it. I took my heart out in that regard early on, because I didn’t want to suffer,” says the Crystal Palace fan. “The Champions League is the holy grail. When the music starts, I’m at peace.”  

Only Bill Nighy could talk about football as if it were a ballet or a symphony. He’s looking, he says, for beauty, for moments of genius, for matches to lose himself in.  

“The other night I watched Inter Milan vs Atletico Madrid and it was football heaven. Two great clubs with different approaches to the game, mirroring the cultures of the Italian and Spanish. No one’s going to put a foot wrong, you can relax. They are all geniuses, you know?  

“I didn’t get serious about watching football until I was in my middle years. It crept up on me but I sit for many, many, many hours waiting for passages of great beauty. You’re waiting for the moments where these physical geniuses do something in one billionth of a second to change a game. I find it fascinating.” 

Michael Sheen at the Cardiff opening ceremony in 2019. Image: Tracey Paddison/Alamy Live News

The Homeless World Cup might be a million miles away from the Champions League. But it has friends in high places. Colin Farrell is a producer on The Beautiful Game and a supporter since narrating 2008 Homeless World Cup documentary Kicking It. Actor Michael Sheen is also more than a fan – he donated a huge sum to ensure the 2019 tournament in Wales went ahead.  

This new film shows why they care so much. It shows the potential in each and every person. And it shows how the Homeless World Cup can help people on a new path to realise that potential. 

“When they get the opportunity to be part of something, to identify with something, to be proud of something, they are just like anyone else,” says Bill Nighy. “This film shows that people’s circumstances don’t define them as human beings.”  

The Beautiful Game premieres on Netflix from 29 March

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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