A Netflix film reminds us of sport's inherent value

At a time when sport risks being reduced to mere entertainment, the story of a team of homeless footballers provides food for thought

The moral of the story in The Beautiful Game is that we can save one another when motivated to do so. Netflix
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The idea that the spirit of athletic competition can help make the world a fairer place – and people more tolerant and accepting – was present at the beginning of many of the great modern sporting concepts, such as the Olympic Games and the football World Cup.

It has also been challenged and tested over the past century as corporations, governments and the wealthy have jostled to associate themselves with the remarkable and inspiring stories that these competitions have given us over the years.

Lately, I have found it difficult to not be caught up in the wave of cynicism about the current state of sport. At times this has spoiled my own enjoyment as the biggest sports seem to be consuming themselves, in a rush to prioritise satiating the global audiences they attract through digital media and television at the cost of what it means to compete.

At its best, sport is tough and unpredictable, and the victor usually has a will to endure that outlasts his or her rival. Sport is suffering for glory, but suffering doesn’t make for good TV.

What it is becoming these days is entertainment for the sake of it. And I see little difference these days between the English Premier League (and its 100-minute matches and Video Assistant Referees) and the scripted drama of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Give me a tight nil-nil draw any day over the nonsense of teams scoring more frequently after the regulation 90 minutes have ended. Of course, you will get more entertainment if you make footballers play longer – and the more tired they get, the more likely someone is to make a mistake. Is that sport or a kind of Hunger Games?

That’s why I was delighted by The Beautiful Game, a film out on Netflix that is inspired by the real Homeless World Cup.

In the Middle East, it often feels as if the trend of homelessness has been normalised

In the movie, a football manager takes a small group of homeless players to Rome to compete in a tournament against other teams from around the world. Each person who takes part has an inspiring story to tell, and to paraphrase the moral of the story, we may be unable to save ourselves when disaster strikes but we can save one another when motivated to do so.

That is what makes sport such an important part of civilisation and our journey to a more equitable society.

However, the idea of a world cup for the homeless also shows us how far we still have to go until we accomplish such a goal. Yet it is possible, according to Mel Young, president of the Homeless World Cup.

Writing for the World Economic Forum last month, he said: “While economic inequality is decreasing on a global scale, many countries are seeing increasing internal economic disparity, and globally, the gulf between rich and poor is growing fast.”

“In this context, homelessness is a key challenge,” he added. “Too often, homelessness is thought of … almost inevitable. This is not the case.”

Mr Young cited examples of success, such as in Finland, where people are given homes first, rather than being expected to find work as a starting point. This makes sense. In the world’s biggest economy, the US, about half a million people are homeless – the largest number recorded in nearly 20 years. Many of them already have jobs but cannot afford a permanent residence.

However, any solutions to people being deprived of a roof over their heads must be capable of working at the largest possible scale. The world’s largest refugee camps are in Kenya, Jordan, South Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, emphasising the global nature of the problem.

In the Middle East, in particular, it often feels as if the trend has been normalised – homelessness is visibly present as a direct result of conflict, climate change and natural disasters, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic. More than seven million people are internally displaced in Syria because of war. In Gaza, we know the reason why millions of people have been displaced in recent months.

According to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, as of March 30, up to 1.7 million people (more than 75 per cent of the population) have been displaced across the Gaza Strip, most of them more than once.

“Families are forced to move repeatedly in search of safety. Following intense Israeli bombardments and fighting in Khan Younis and the Middle Area in recent weeks, a significant number of displaced people have moved further south,” UNRWA said this week. This includes one million individuals residing in or near emergency shelters or informal shelters, it added.

We will never be able to fully prevent or put a stop to the triggers that can lead to people losing their homes. Yet we can act once their lives have changed. Providing greater access to homes – whether in terms of making them more affordable or physically helping people to reach them safely – should be the ultimate goal.

Published: April 05, 2024, 7:00 AM