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'The Beautiful Game' is inspired by true stories of the Homeless World Cup. Lisa Wrightsman lived one

Lisa Wrightsman joined a soccer league for people affected by homelessness, and her life changed forever.
Lisa Wrightsman
Lisa Wrightsman (R) her wife Tiffany Fraser.Courtesy Leo Anaya
/ Source: Today.com

Lisa Wrightsman got a fresh start at life and love, all thanks to street soccer. 

Wrightsman, 43, played soccer at Sacramento State in California and expected to go pro. But when the women's professional league folded and her dreams "collapsed," Wrightsman says her trajectory changed drastically. 

“That was the beginning of my hitting bottom,” she tells TODAY.com. Without the “structure of playing” and what she got from being a “leader on the field,” Wrightsman says she “leaned into alcohol and drugs like crazy.”

At 29, Wrightsman made the decision to become sober and was living in transitional housing. Some other residents were on their way to a street soccer tournament and invited her.

Lisa Wrightsman
U.S. women's coach Lisa Wrightsman, left, celebrates with Sienna Jackson, center right, and Elizabeth Kin after the team's win over Sweden at the Homeless World Cup in 2023.Godofredo A. Vásquez / AP

“They didn’t look like soccer players and they had worse backgrounds than I did. They asked me to play because they knew I had experience. And immediately I was like, ‘No way. I’m done playing.’ I spent my life in soccer. And it led me nowhere,” she says.

But she eventually relented — and her soccer career began again. In 2010, Wrightsman played her first game with Street Soccer USA, a non-profit organization that runs soccer tournaments specifically for people affected by homelessness and people in recovery, like Wrightsman was at the time.  

Lisa Wrightsman
Wrightsman playing street soccer.Courtesy Leo Anaya

Founded in 2009 by two brothers in North Carolina, Street Soccer USA has since expanded to 16 cities, focusing on neighborhoods where 33% of residents live below the poverty line and where graduation rates are between 55 to 65%, its website says.

Each year, the league sends a team to represent it at the annual Homeless World Cup, founded in 2001. Wrightsman, in her first year associated with Street Soccer USA, went to Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Homeless World Cup.

“The Beautiful Game,” out on Netflix March 29, is a movie inspired by stories like Wrightsman’s, but focuses more on homeless men. Micheal Ward stars as soccer player Vinny and Bill Nighy is Mal, the coach who takes a team to the Homeless World Cup. 

Micheal Ward, Bill Nighy in 'The Beautiful Game.'
Micheal Ward and Bill Nighy.Netflix

Wrightsman says the movie is “dead on” when it comes to depicting her experiences with the Homeless World Cup. “We’re just this motley crew. People that nobody wanted and so we kind of head down go into this tournament,” she says.  

Participants in the Homeless World Cup have to meet one of four criteria, per the tournament’s website. They must have been homeless at some point in the last year, according to their home country’s definition of homelessness; make their living as a street paper vendor; been an asylum seeker at any point; in addiction rehabilitation and has been homeless at some point in the past two years.

The league and the cup changed Wrightsman’s life. She’s been a coach for Sacramento’s Lady Salamanders team since 2011, the year after her World Cup run. Wrightsman is headed back to the Homeless World Cup in September in Seoul, South Korea, for the 19th annual competition as a coach for the national team. 

This year’s tournament will host 500 players from nearly 50 countries

“It’s always about the success of guiding the players we take through that experience so that it’s positive for them when they get back home and it does the same thing that it did for me,” Wrightsman says. 

“Help them go on that journey, experience the highs and the lows, the overstimulation, all of the things happening, and then come back energized,” she says.

The Homeless World Cup says the organization has bettered the lives of its players. Per a survey posted on its website, 94% of players say the cup positively impacted their lives, 83% improved social relations with family and friends and 76% continue to enjoy and play the sport.

Wrightsman can attest to the league’s transformative powers both on and off the field. When she opened herself back up to soccer, little did she know that she was also opening up herself to love.

During first year coaching, Wrightman connected with her now-wife, Tiffany Fraser. The two both attended Sacramento State but hadn’t met as students. Instead, Wrightsman met Fraser while making amends with old friends and teammates as part of her recovery program.   

“They invited me to a soccer team that was made up of Sac State alumni players just playing for fun. I went to one of those games and met her for the first time there,” she says. Fraser was looking for a volunteer opportunity, and after hearing about Street Soccer USA, decided to volunteer for the Lady Salamanders.

Lisa Wrightsman
Wrightsman and Fraser.Courtesy Leo Anaya

A romance blossomed and they married in 2019. Their anniversary is just four days after Wrightsman’s sobriety anniversary on Nov. 5 and weeks after the 2024 Homeless World Cup. 

Fraser and Wrightsman opened their own street soccer facility and community park in 2020 in Sacramento. Fraser works with Street Soccer USA in development and the couple coaches the national team that goes to the Homeless World Cup. 

Lisa Wrightsman
Lisa Wrightsman and her wife Tiffany Fraser secured funding to build their own street soccer facility in Sacramento, California.Courtesy Leo Anaya

“It’s really about the experience of soccer communicating what words can’t,” Wrightsman says.

“Something happens when you go to a tournament or an event with your own baggage and then you meet people from around the world who know your story and don’t even speak the same language,” she says. “There is this very liberating thing when it’s not you.”