Interview | Director Thea Sharrock and Homeless World Cup co-founder Mel Young on The Beautiful Game

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We chat to director Thea Sharrock and the co-founder of the Homeless World Cup about the new film, The Beautiful Game. 

You may not have heard of the Homeless World Cup. I sure hadn’t, not before watching Thea Sharrock’s uplifting The Beautiful Game at least. The event brings together teams from all over the world, all made up of homeless people. But here, they’re not defined by their lack of housing; they’re athletes, footballers.

We sat down with Sharrock and Mel Young, the co-founder of the Cup, to discuss the new film and what went into making it. Sharrock has already had a busy year; Wicked Little Letters was released in the UK in February and the sweary film makes its US debut in the same week as The Beautiful Game hits Netflix worldwide. 

Sharrock assures us that she’s well despite her hectic work schedule and says Wicked Little Letters, which was filmed after The Beautiful Game, and the more masculine, football-focused film “complement each other in a funny way”.

You can find our chat with Sharrock and Young right below.  

Mel, when was the idea of a fictional film about the Homeless World Cup first pitched to you?

Mel Young: I think it was around 2006 when the idea emerged. There [has been] a number of documentaries being done about the Homeless World Cup since we started. And the idea [for a fictional film] came about then, there were a number of discussions and then Blueprint [Pictures, production company] started coming to our events, and we talked more and more, and it developed into the movie that it is today. It’s been fantastic, the amount of time they’ve spent with us, checking out how it worked, and who we were, and so on to make the film as authentic as possible. 

I get to talk to a lot of directors about making these films about true stories and them putting their mark on the stories. We talk a lot about creative freedom and whether it’s intimidating or not to have the real people involved. But I want to hear from your side, did you have any worries going into this? 

MY: You’re always worried that it’s not going to be representative. But it wasn’t a documentary, it was a fictional movie. We got to know the people from Blueprint really well and then we got to meet Thea. It’s about a trust. And we trust the artists, we’d read the script, we met Frank Cottrell-Boyce (writer) a number of times. So actually, we were very relaxed about it. I think it’s important that the relationship was formed at an early stage and then developed, so by the time the film was made – and they kindly invited me to the shooting in Rome – we were very relaxed. But you’re right, it’s a good question, because it was getting us a bit nervous. Are they going to make us look really stupid or not represent us [right]? But that wasn’t the case at all, it’s been a fantastic relationship and we’re delighted that the movie is now coming out.

And like you already mentioned, there are quite a few documentaries about it. So making a fictional film, what did that give you as a storyteller, Thea?

Thea Sharrock: My intro, in a way, to the idea was Kicking It, which is an amazing documentary, really cleverly put together and very, very careful in its following of various stories. You immediately really get to know the characters and it starts while they’re training and hoping to be chosen for the team. You follow them through that very precarious time and you realise straightaway how much it means to them just to be chosen for the team in order to go. Then you follow the team through getting to South Africa and through the tournament. You go through the highs and lows of the drama of football. What that documentary does is it gives you how important the tournament is and what it [means] for them to participate in, but within the context of their whole life. It’s not just starting with the football and ending with the football, it starts and ends with them as people.

Reading the script that Frank had written, it was really clear to me that he’d spent a lot of time, not just with Mel and people who work for the foundation, but most importantly, the players and people who’ve been through it, every one of whom has their own story to tell.  Most importantly, he captured the atmosphere [of] the actual tournament, when it takes place. Tickets are free, you don’t pay to go, so often at the beginning of the tournament, [there’s] not that many people to begin with, and by the end of the tournament, they’re always full. 

the beautiful game bill nighy
Credit: Netflix

You come from a theatre background and just listening to you now describing it, it sounds so theatrical. Did that appeal to you as well, that whole range of emotions that you get?

TS: I’m a massive football fan, so that side of it was easy for me. Graham Broadbent, who’s the producer, is the opposite of a football fan, he comes from a completely different place. And then, as I got more and more involved, firstly, I met Frank who is also a huge football fan. So I knew that that side of it was not only going to be taken care of, but we were going to have a lot of fun with that. And obviously, Mel. You said it, the drama of football, it can be absolutely heartstopping. In my household, if you just mentioned penalty shootout, my mum has to leave the room just at the prospect of it because the drama is too much. So yes, it lends itself brilliantly to the theatrics of what the movie needed. 

And when did Netflix come aboard? Because I’m wondering, was that quite intentional to get as many pairs of eyes to this film? I know you’ve been in cinemas for a limited release for the past week. But this Friday, the film will go on Netflix, and a lot of people like me will probably discover it and will probably learn for the first time about Homeless World Cup, like me. 

MY: I think it was intentional. Between Blueprint and Netflix and certainly from our perspective, the more people watching this the better. In fact, it’s a really good movie, just in terms of people learning about us and maybe getting involved, that’s very, very important. So from our point of view, selfishly, we just want as many people as possible to watch it. And of course, Netflix will allow that. 

TS: I think it’s also the immediate international reach that Netflix gives, which, in many ways, is a natural partnership with both the Homeless World Cup in itself and what we’ve tried to capture in the movie. We’ve brought in so many different nations to involve within the story, that feels like absolutely a partnership that was kind of waiting to happen.

MY: Within the Homeless World Cup, we always say that there’s different languages that people can’t communicate with each other, but football is the communicator. And so with Netflix going out and using football, I am absolutely certain there’ll be people watching in Brazil, South Africa and Australia. 

TS: Mexico. 

MY: Mexico is our biggest partner in terms of numbers. When we had the event in Mexico, we had 167,000 people, over eight days watching homeless people play football, and the atmosphere was incredible. That’s the sort of audience that will actually watch this movie. 

There’s a line in the film about football being “one great universal language”. Did that come from you, Mel? 

MY: I think other people have talked about that as well, but we have used that from the outset. When we (Young and Harald Schmied founded the Cup in 2001) came up with the idea, that’s what we were talking about, about how we could involve homeless people in something. And there were all sorts of barriers to that, including language. If people couldn’t speak to one another, how could we do that? And there was this language called football, everybody understands it. You just kick a ball to each other, and people get it. And actually, it really, really works. There’s lots of anecdotal stories I have of players from different countries meeting together, being absolutely unable to communicate, but have remained friends on social media for years afterwards, as a result of football.

Did you also want to cater to people like me? I don’t understand the game and I still don’t know what offside means. 

TS: That’s okay, you don’t need to for this. Absolutely. Sometimes the biggest compliment is people who watch the film going, ‘Oh, my God, I loved it. And I hate football,’ or ‘I don’t love football, I have no relationship with football whatsoever, but I really loved it.’ Football is a really integral part of the storyline, no question, but in many ways, it’s not a football movie. What it’s really about is something much, much bigger and much more important. Football is a wonderful device of getting through the story. 

MY: Football is the language, the story’s around it. It’s the social impact that we’re concerned about, that’s what drives us, but football is the language and it brings people together. People who come to the event will say, ‘I actually hate football, I can’t stand it. But I love what’s going on here.’ And [they] keep coming back to watch it. So there’s lots of other people, although, traditional football fans are there, of course, who are joining in and understanding what’s going on. 

TS: I think to be able to cater to both is probably the biggest compliment we can have. There’s enough football in there for the football fans, for sure, but there is not too much by any means to turn it into too much of a football movie for those who aren’t.

the beautiful game cast rome
Credit: Netflix

And what I really appreciated is that there’s quite a lot of dark stuff in there. Alder is a refugee, Nathan is a former addict. But how important was it that you don’t dwell on that stuff? 

TS: For me, the experience of the Homeless World Cup as a foundation is such an overwhelmingly positive and uplifting phenomenon, that I definitely wanted the tone of the movie to be uplifting and to be positive but not to be afraid of what can be really hard in life. But if we can share the message that we’re all deserving of a second chance, then I think it’s really important to show the dark side and not to get nervous of that, as I say, but ultimately to show that if you can push through that, and this is what this foundation does.

MY: I think for us, it’s about destroying the stereotypical image of homeless people. When we’re working with homeless guys, particularly in the beginning, because you can talk about all the issues which are very real and some of the backstories are horrific, but we just talk about football. And of course, our partners around the world are working with them all the time to change their situation, whatever that might be. But football is kind of the thing that pulls them together, almost like into a family. So by the time they’re coming to the annual event, they’re footballers representing a country. That’s what they are. They’re not homeless people. And I remember one of the media guys who spoke just at the very beginning, the first tournament, when we didn’t quite know how this was going to turn out. He said to me, ‘The thing is, as soon as the ball gets kicked, you forget they’re homeless.’ That’s the point, that’s what we’re doing.

The Beautiful Game is on Netflix from 29th March. 

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