IWhen Martin Bengtsson feels stressed, he kicks a football around alone and almost immediately the tension begins to ease. “Today I’m playing for meditation,” he says. “I have a very natural and close relationship with the ball; We still have a good relationship.”
Bengtsson is 36 years old, but 20 years ago his first touch was so seamless that opponents could have believed he and footballs were inseparable. The then Sweden youth international was such a gifted midfielder that he was quickly signed by the Internazionale academy. where everything went wrong
He arrived in Milan hyped as one of Sweden’s biggest talents but left the team less than a year later in a deep depression, apparently compounded by, among other things, a clear lack of patronage or emotional intelligence on the part of Inter’s staff.
According to Bengtsson, they were not content with not giving him Italian lessons and tore up the sheets covered with the creative writing he had begun to produce in his spare time. Eventually, the prodigy did the unthinkable and walked out before turning his back on the game.
Today, a man whose creativity was definitely not limited to his feet, is a full-time writer, with his autobiography In the Shadow of San Siro now a compellingly thought-provoking and highly artistic film, Tigers, directed by Ronnie Sandahl.
After meeting on a book tour in 2011, the pair vowed during a drunken night to bring Bengtsson’s story to the big screen, and it was worth waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.
“I used to use writing as a balance in the football world, but now I usually go out with a football when I need to recover from working with words,” jokes the former midfielder, who has toured for several years as a successful, gifted musician was before I settled down to write full-time. “The film and television industry is under pressure, so it helps me deal with it.”
Sandahl, a compatriot from Sweden, brought Bengtsson’s words to cinematic life and clearly enjoyed immersing himself in a parallel, often almost hermetically sealed universe that he had only known up close as a QPR fan.
“The football industry is a buffet of absurdities and oddities,” says Sandahl. “It’s a world of often extreme masculinity where you can actually buy and sell people.
“Media and fans around the world put these young players in a really strange position. A 15-year-old in Manchester United’s academy can indeed become famous. You can suddenly be worth 40 million euros, so the pressure is just enormous. Especially with social media”
The book is set in 2004, but the film, while heavily biographical, is fast-forwarded nearly two decades. Apart from the advent of Instagram and Co., much remains the same. “It’s super-weird,” says Sandahl. “The most recurring comment I get from pro players who have moved abroad is that they are not being taught the language. They think they’re getting all these lessons, and it’s not happening.”
Tigers combines an art house ambience with authenticity. “The players and coaches I spoke to know a lot from their own lives,” says Sandahl. “They think it’s very accurate. They always tell me that I should never give their names because it’s not good to talk about depression or bullying. It’s almost impossible to talk about how you’re feeling, especially with young players. They fear if you do that you won’t play on Saturday.
“Coaches also say: ‘Sure, we have two psychologists, but the players are careful to talk to them because the risk of it coming back to the club makes it impossible.’ I have the impression that many clubs have psychologists on their payroll almost for PR reasons.”
Dad to a two-year-old and engaged, Bengtsson can see Inter never became the surrogate family he longed for. “I really hope that this film can stimulate a discussion about academies,” he says. “Coaches need to understand the psychology that comes with the pressure to make or be about to make big money and play in front of a lot of people.
“I had a clause in my contract that I should go to school and learn Italian, but it didn’t happen. Language is such a super central part of being able to integrate and without it I was a lot more lost and lonely. There were times when I felt completely left out.”
The old mantra of survival of the fittest didn’t help much. “The attitude of ‘Who’s strong enough, tough enough to make it?’ has been around for far too long,” says Bengtsson. “It’s very, very old-fashioned psychology.
“Today I don’t get so angry that people don’t see what happened to me, but there are situations that happened at Inter that I can still get angry about. I started writing to deal with my depression, to stay sane, to have some outlet. But they threw away my papers and said football people shouldn’t write. That wasn’t right.
“I became very good at hiding my feelings. That’s a key masculinity issue the film emphasizes: hide your feelings if you want to be part of the group.”
Sandahl brilliantly captures the absurdity, fantasy, fabulousness and at times the sheer attrition of the football industry through the eyes of a teenager. His insistence on ensuring scenes were filmed on the pitch with players spending long periods without even touching the ball adds to the sense of reality. The game’s sometimes dangerously edgy humor occasionally leaves viewers unsure whether to laugh or cry.
“There are so many extreme personalities in football,” says Sandahl. “Because to make it, you have to sacrifice everything. I wonder if we’re losing a lot of the smartest and most creative players, the sensitive kids.”
Incidentally, young protégés also experience growing up. “I wanted to get Martin’s sense of how he discovers the world,” he says. “So the movie is also about a 16-year-old who has his first kiss, his first girlfriend, his first time having sex, his first time getting drunk and his first car.”
Despite his searing, hard-hitting exploration of teenage depression and often dysfunctional football men, Tigers has a happy ending. “This isn’t a movie about winning and losing a game,” says Sandahl. “It’s about winning and losing in your life. And Martin wins. It’s a success story.”
Tigers is in UK cinemas from 01.01July.