If Martin Bengtsson feels stressed, he is playing football alone and, almost immediately, the tension begins to ebb. “Today I play for meditation,” he says. “I have a very natural and close relationship with the ball; we always have good relations.
Bengtsson is 36 but, 20 years ago, his first touch was so perfectly sticky that opponents could have been forgiven for believing he and footballs were inseparable. The then Swedish youth international was such a gifted midfielder that he was soon signed by Internazionale’s academy; this is where it all went wrong.
He arrived in Milan as one of the greatest talents Sweden had produced, but left less than a year later plagued by severe depression apparently exacerbated by, among other things, a flagrant lack of paternalism or emotional intelligence from Inter staff.
According to Bengtsson, not content with not giving him Italian lessons, they tore up the sheets of paper covered in the creative writing he had started producing in his spare time. Eventually, the prodigy did the unthinkable and walked out before turning his back on the game.
These days, a man whose creativity certainly wasn’t confined to his feet is a full-time writer, with his autobiography, In the Shadow of San Siro, now a compelling and highly artistic film, Tigers, directed by Ronnie Sandahl.
After meeting on a book tour in 2011, the couple vowed on a drunken night out to bring Bengtsson’s story to the big screen, and the fulfillment of that commitment was well worth the effort. expected.
“I used to use writing as a way to relieve the pressure in the world of football, but now I usually go out with a football when I need to relax after working with words,” jokes the former midfielder, who spent several years touring as a gifted and successful musician. before settling down to write full time. “The film and TV industry is under high pressure, so this helps me deal with it.”
Sandahl, a fellow Swede, brought Bengtsson’s lyrics to life and clearly enjoyed immersing himself in a parallel, often almost hermetic universe he had known only at arm’s length as a QPR fan.
“The football industry is a buffet of absurdities and weirdness,” says Sandahl. “It’s a world of often extreme masculinity where you can actually buy and sell humans.
“The media and fans around the world are putting these young players in a really strange position. A 15-year-old from Manchester United’s academy can actually be famous. You can suddenly be worth 40 million euros, the pressure is huge, especially with social networks”
The book is set in 2004 but the film, while heavily biographical, fast forwards nearly two decades. The advent of Instagram et al aside, a lot remains the same. “It’s super weird,” says Sandahl. “The most recurring comment I have from professional players who have gone abroad is that they are not taught the language. They think they will get all these lessons and it doesn’t happen.
Tigers combines artistic atmosphere and authenticity. “The players and coaches I spoke to recognize a lot in their own lives,” says Sandahl. “They think it’s very accurate. They also tell me right away never to use their name because it’s not okay to talk about depression or bullying. Especially with young players, it’s almost impossible to talk about how you feel. You are afraid, if you do, of not playing on Saturday.
“The coaches also say: ‘Of course we have two psychologists, but the players are reluctant to talk to them because the risk of it coming back to the club makes it impossible. I feel like a lot of clubs have psychologists on their payroll almost as a PR gimmick.
Bengtsson is the father of a two-year-old and fiancé, and can see that Inter never became the surrogate family he dreamed of. “I really hope this film can create a discussion about the academies,” he says. “Coaches need to understand the psychology that comes with being pressured to make a lot of money, or being on the verge of making a lot of money and playing in front of a lot of people.
“I had a clause in my contract saying I was supposed to go to school and learn Italian, but that didn’t happen. Language is such a central element in allowing you to fit in, and without it I was all the more lost and alone. There were times when I felt completely left out.
The old mantra about survival of the fittest didn’t help either. “The attitude of, ‘Who’s strong enough, tough enough to do it?’ It’s been around for way too long,” Bengtsson says. “It’s very, very old-school psychology.
“Today I’m not so annoyed that people don’t see what was happening to me, but there are situations that happened at Inter that I can still be angry about. I started to write to deal with my depression, to stay sane, to have an outlet. But they threw away my papers and said footballers shouldn’t write. It wasn’t fair.
“I became very good at hiding my emotions. This is an important masculinity issue that the film brings to light: hide your feelings if you want to be part of the group.
Sandahl brilliantly captures the absurdity, the fantasy, the fabulous and, at times, the pure grind of the football industry through the eyes of a teenager. His insistence on ensuring that scenes on the pitch are filmed with players going for long periods without even touching the ball reinforces the sense of reality. Meanwhile, the game’s sometimes dangerously edgy humor sometimes leaves viewers unsure whether to laugh or cry.
“There are so many extreme personalities in football,” says Sandahl. “Because to get there, you have to sacrifice everything. I wonder if we are losing a lot of the smartest and most creative players, the sensitive kids. »
Along the way, the young proteges also experience adolescence. “I wanted to feel like Martin was discovering the world,” he says. “So the film is also about a 16-year-old who has his first kiss, his first girlfriend, has sex for the first time, has his first drunken experience, and buys his first car.”
Despite its searing and unforgiving exploration of teenage depression and often dysfunctional footballers, Tigers has a happy ending. “It’s not a movie about winning and losing a match,” says Sandahl. “It’s about winning and losing in your life. And Martin wins. It’s a success. »
Tigers is in UK cinemas from 1 July.