Film

The Beautiful Game: Meet the real-life footballers who inspired Netflix's Homeless World Cup film

Meet the players of the Homeless World Cup whose stories informed the new Netflix movie

The Beautiful game is on Netflix from 29 March. Image: Alfredo Falvo / Netflix

These are the real-life footballers who inspired The Beautiful Game, the new Netflix drama based on the Homeless World Cup starring award-winning actor Billy Nighy, Micheal Ward and Callum Scott Howells.

Lisa Wrightsman, USA

Lisa Wrightsman’s life story could be quite the motion picture in its own right – so it’s fitting that she features in The Beautiful Game. The American fell into homelessness after her dreams of being a professional footballer didn’t pan out and addictions tore her life apart.

But the Homeless World Cup offered her a way back in life and she played for the Street Soccer USA team in the event in Brazil in 2010 – an experience she told the Big Issue was “mind-blowing”.

Image: Sacramento Sate / Andrea Price

She went on to coach the USA team at subsequent tournaments and set up women’s coach programmes in her native Sacramento. 

But the crowning redemptive moment came last year when Wrightsman welcomed teams all over the world for the Homeless World Cup in her home city – the first time the tournament had been held in the States in its 20-year history. 

“When Mel Young from the Homeless World Cup called to ask if some of us from Street Soccer USA wanted to be part of filming for The Beautiful Game to play the role of the USA Women’s team – we said yes immediately,” Wrightsman told the Big Issue. “When it comes to the Homeless World Cup or Street Soccer USA (SSUSA) it’s usually a yes to anything and we were delighted to be invited out to Rome, Italy. 

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“We didn’t know what to expect, what our role would be, how big a part we would have but we were shocked to learn on arrival that we would be part of the story and have a role to play, it was incredible. The first time we got fitted for costumes, meeting director Thea Sharrock, the cast and the crew – it was so overwhelming and exciting. 

“To understand the effort that went into the The Beautiful Game, to see the boldness and audacity to shoot following the Covid-19 pandemic, it just seemed aligned with how bold and how brave the Homeless Word Cup event is. 

“It was like a Homeless World Cup fantasy family reunion in a special place halfway across the world for us. Spending five weeks with people that you feel so deeply connected to and then spending the time on the set, in costumes, recounting all our individual Homeless World Cup memories and experiences – it was a moment in time that I was proud to be a part of. Every day we would say to each other – how did this happen? Are we really doing this and in Rome, with actors on a real movie about the Homeless World Cup? 

“It felt like being a part of another Homeless World Cup. I hope the world gets to watch this magical event unfold on the big screen and join the Homeless World Cup family by supporting what the Homeless World Cup Foundation, SSUSA and so many people do day in, day out.” 

Lisa Wrightsman, left, celebrates with Sienna Jackson, center right, and Elizabeth Kin after the team’s win over Sweden at the Homeless World Cup 2023, in Sacramento. Image: AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez

Raph Aziz, England

Raph Aziz, originally from France, represented England in Mexico back in 2018. But his experiences of homelessness have come in his adopted nation after he arrived in London in 2011. 

Aziz had his passport stolen when he arrived and that left him with few options. He needed the support of youth homelessness charity New Horizon Youth Centre to escape homelessness. 

His visit to Mexico came at a “critical point” for his development, Aziz said. Now he has come full circle and is coaching football to young people at New Horizon after the West Ham Foundation paid for his qualification. As well as coaching men’s team FC Hope and women’s team FC Faith, he also acts as a key worker to help them navigate the pitfalls of the homelessness system in London. 

“Going to the Homeless World Cup gave me so many opportunities in terms of core values, community growth and to unlock some potential and confidence in me and then it had a tremendous impact on the rest of my life,” said Aziz. 

“I love the concept of being a community leader. I tell my kids to aspire to inspire. If I can show them the passion that I have then I know they will take it on board and pass it on to the next person.” 

Without the Homeless World Cup’s intervention, Aziz, 32, says he wouldn’t have the chance to impact other people’s lives and he hopes The Beautiful Game will bring a “trickle-down effect”. 

“I would be a criminal with no prospects,” says Aziz. 

“I would be looking for a quick way to solve problems instead of committing to the long run so it would be a different story. I wouldn’t be myself.” 

Lisa Gornell, England

When it comes to the Homeless World Cup, Lisa Gornell has seen it all in the 11 years since she first captained the England women’s team in Poznan, Poland. She was a part of the England coaching team in Chile a year later and at Oslo in 2017 and volunteered at Cardiff in 2019. It’s testament to how much the HWC has given to the life-long Liverpool fan and football fanatic. 

A traumatic bereavement saw Gornell unravel into addiction leaving her living in a hostel where she was known as the ‘football mum’ due to her age and motherly instincts while she was unable to see her daughter. 

“I lived in a bubble for many years with addiction, losing my home and living in a hostel,” said Gornell, 44. “I love football, I feel like I can be myself and people accept me with football. I was always in a bubble with the thought the world was against me, that was my attitude. 

“When I got to Poland I felt like I was at home with everyone because they were in the same bubble as me. I didn’t have to pretend to be anything, I could just be myself. And I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t ashamed. I felt a part of a family.” 

Now, community is at the forefront of Gornell’s mindset. She coaches, volunteers and mentors at Liverpool Homeless FC as well as a host of other roles including with Keep Britain Tidy. 

Gornell hopes The Beautiful Game will give people an insight into homelessness and change a few perceptions and misconceptions. 

“I loved it,” said Gornell. “It really brought back memories. Happy ones, sad ones for all the good reasons and laughable ones too.” 

Sarah Frohwein, Wales

Image: Phillip Griffiths

Sarah Frohwein has been both hero and villain at the Homeless World Cup after playing in Oslo in 2017 to become a referee in Cardiff and Sacramento. 

Frohwein was living in her mother-in-law’s house with her partner and one-year-old baby when she joined Street Football Wales after they encountered problems renting a property. 

She had previously played for Port Talbot’s women’s team but had fallen away from football and was at a low ebb before a trip to Norway put her on a new path. 

“It’s definitely given me a new life because before the Homeless World Cup and street football I had no job, I had no will to live at that time because I was suffering with miscarriages and stuff like that,” said Frohwein, 33. “Life was at a stop and it gave me that extra little boost. It gives you that hope in life that you can do things. 

“Oslo was insane. I felt like I’m somebody. It makes you stand out when normally you’re hiding in the background. 

“I got asked if I wanted to referee in Cardiff because the Homeless World Cup was coming to our hometown. I was like: ‘I don’t know about that, I’ve always been a player and referees have always been the villains.’ But the training made me understand the game so much better. 

“It’s a different experience but it’s the two different versions of one big knitted family.” 

Now, Frohwein has two children and works an events co-ordinator for a charity supporting people with mental health and substance abuse issues. 

“It helps so much for me to build up my CV and saying I’ve done all this stuff volunteering,” she said. “Football brings the whole world together.” 

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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