The Beautiful Game: Is Mal Bradley Based on a Real Football Coach?

Thea Sharrock’s ‘The Beautiful Game’ is a feel-good sports film that revolves around a ragtag group’s venture into a life-changing competition that teaches them lessons that transcend the football field. Mal Bradley, a famed former Football scout, coaches England’s football team for the Homeless World Cup in his retirement. This year, after the man assembles his pick, he makes the impulsive decision to include Vinny Walker, a footballer who came close to going pro before losing everything, into his team. Thus, the team experiences some friction as a result of Vinny and his complicated relationship with his situation.

Yet, through it all, Mal’s team’s and the global community’s collective love for football prevails, offering the players an opportunity to turn their lives around. While Mal remains on the sidelines in this sports drama, his relentless support for his team becomes the pillar of the narrative, propelling forward themes of perseverance and sportsmanship. However, is there any real-life relevance behind this character?

Mal Bradley: A Fictional Football Coach In a Realistic Tale

Within the true-story-inspired narrative of ‘The Beautiful Game,’ most characters and events remain fictionalized versions of a cluster of real-life stories. While the same applies to Bill Nighy’s character, Mal Bradley, there’s no definitive real-life counterpart behind his character. Although Frankie Juma, the current coach of England’s Homeless Football team, occupies the same position as Mal, the two individuals seem to share nothing else in common.

Where Mal holds a famed position in the world of football in the film, Juma is a Sudanese refugee in real life whose coaching journey began as a desire to give back to his community. Likewise, Craig McManus, a player who formerly represented Scotland’s Homeless Football Team and went on to become a manager for England’s team, presents a real-life instance of an HWC manager/coach but shares little similarities with Mal. As such, Mal becomes a work of fiction whose experiences and traits remain informed by reality without presenting a mirror reflection of the same.

In the film, Mal remains a compelling character with a seemingly endless well of empathy to offer to the people around him. The man clearly holds on to a fondness for football as a sport and seeks to be a part of it even after hanging up his hat as a famed Football scout. Thus, his presence in the narrative remains a consistent reminder of the sport’s spirit. Yet, the man isn’t without his darker moments, with a nuanced, if formulaic, backstory that enriches his experiences and actions.

Therefore, Nighy’s intrinsic love for football likely presented a convenient tool to instill ease within his performance. The actor, a self-proclaimed Crystal Palace fan, discussed the sport in a conversation with the BBC. “[But] I think it [football] does bring everyone closer and brings people from all of the world together,” said the actor after conceding his doubts about the sport’s ability to change one’s life entirely. “It’s a universal language for about half of the world, and I think, to some degree, it can alleviate prejudice.”

In addition to the same, some of Mal’s sense of realism stems from his inherently kind and passionate approach to the world of the Homeless World Cup, assigning appropriate esteem and gravity to the event. Director Sharrock spoke about her approach to the same in an interview with HeyUGuys— and said, “[And] Authenticity was one of the things that I wanted this film to be— as real as possible and as respectful [as possible]. And as much of a truth-telling of the people involved and what it is, [what] this amazing foundation is— and what it gives to people. So, I think maybe authenticity is what I’m aiming for.”

The film achieves authenticity in the latter aspect of its storytelling through collaboration and support from the mentioned foundation, The Homeless World Cup. Although the foundation houses numerous impressive coaches whose stories could have helped inform the fictional character’s narrative, it hasn’t seen many pro-scouts-turned-coaches whose stories are reminiscent of Mal’s on-screen journey. Thus, Mal’s story— for all its glories of the past— remains a primarily fictionalized account with minimum similarities to any real-life HWC managers/coaches.

Read More: The Beautiful Game: Where Was Netflix’s Sports Movie Filmed?