“Tigers” ends triumphantly because Martin Bengtsson – the main character whose real-life story is based on the film – survives.
But in Milan, his dream and career collapsed. After nine months in Italy, Bengtsson developed depression following his injury and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists in the shower.
He was sent back to his native Sweden to recuperate, never returned and retired from football a year later at the age of 18.
Inspired by his therapist, Bengtsson began writing to reflect on his experience in Milan and to refute rumors that he left after becoming addicted to drugs.
“And while I was doing that, I also became more and more aware that this story was missing. No one told her from the inside.”
When Bengtsson published his memoir In the Shadow of the San Siro in 2007, it was one of the first reports of its kind, even FIFPRO – the world’s players’ union – did not conduct a mental health survey until 2013.
After Bengtsson published his book, he moved to Berlin where he met filmmaker and writer Ronny Sandal in 2011 and they became good friends.
“I knew Ronnie was a very, very good writer—one of the greatest of his generation,” says Bengtsson. “And so I knew that … it would be a good film … I believed in it.”
Nine years later, Sandal brought Bengtsson’s story to the screen as Tigers, which will be released in UK cinemas on 1 July.
Sandal’s film received critical acclaim and was nominated by Sweden for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars last year.
The film’s title is a reference to caged animals being kept as tourist attractions, and cage-like motifs are scattered throughout the film.
The metal bars seem to follow Sandal’s vision of Bengtsson wherever he goes: on his dorm window, in nightclubs, and even the stadium itself becomes a kind of cage.
“This is the truth about the essence of this boy who is fighting for his dream, getting trapped in the dream and trying to somehow find a way out,” says Bengtsson, remembering himself in his youth.
“Football is all it is”
Part of the turmoil depicted in the film is Bengtsson’s struggle to redefine his identity, which was completely dependent on football.
Its importance was so great that football turned out to be the code by which the actor Eric Enge understood and interpreted the character.
“I had a fantastic personal trainer who just made my body look like a football player,” Enge tells CNN Sport.
“Instead of just mentally reading the script … I was able to get into Martin’s head with physical work.”
Bengtsson’s daily routine, like his personality, revolved around becoming a professional footballer.
He will train on his own schedule for three hours a day while playing at his own club.
This tension between becoming the best individual player or the best team player shaped Bengtsson’s relationship with teammates in the film and in real life.
So close to a professional contract and beating the odds, in the movie, the competition between teammates is far superior to that of their opponents.
“In the end, it’s all up to you and your career, even if you’re on a team,” Sandal tells CNN.
“Mirror in the house of laughter”
Bengtsson’s book and Sandal’s film reveal a side of football that isn’t usually talked about.
“The world of football works almost like a mirror in a crooked room for topics like masculinity or capitalism,” says Sandal. “It’s practically a world where you buy and sell people.”
The market for young football players is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Such huge sums of money can somewhat overshadow how young these players are.
“I heard… from people who watched the movie that they can’t watch the game like they used to anymore because they suddenly see pretty young boys in there who suddenly become human,” Sandal says. .
While Bengtsson’s story took place in 2004, the film is set in the present day against the backdrop of social media.
Bengtsson suggests that social media, coupled with more money pouring into football, is holding back the potential gains made in mental health in recent years.
“Currently, [young footballers] today are in the spotlight in a completely different way,” he says. “So I think that although we talk about it more, the problems have kind of outgrown it.”
Football’s governing bodies have made some changes in an attempt to improve the players’ mental health.
Under the rules for the 2021/22 season, the English Premier League has made it mandatory for the Category 1 Academy – the name given to almost all Premier League clubs and several Championship clubs – to hire at least one full-time psychologist. e
Club owners and coaches, however, can do much more to alleviate the pressure young players face by becoming more aware of the “psychological level in the sport,” says Bengtsson.
“[They can start] to see how much pressure it is … what are you working for so much money and how it affects [you]. Or just enter the arena and see how a huge crowd is looking at you. What does it do to a person?
“And of course, when you see it from the outside or when you see it from the fans, you might think, ‘Wow, what a feeling. It’s also scary to have.”
CNN has reached out to FIFA and Inter Milan for comment.
“Cost at the End”
These problems are not unique to football. Last year, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles withdrew from the French Open and several events at the Tokyo Olympics, respectively, to prioritize their mental health.
Tennis and gymnastics feature in Sandal’s other two films, Borg vs. McEnroe and Perfect, which he sees as a loose trilogy in conjunction with The Tigers, exploring the psychology of sports stars.
Each reveals the “tremendous pressure” young athletes face in their pursuit of greatness, and Sandal sees similarities in each discipline.
“This is a world that encourages extreme people to go all the way despite the very high price, and then [the athletes] in the end, they are left alone with this cost, ”says Sandal.
“Because everyone who encourages these young athletes to go all the way, they’re not around when they’re not in the spotlight.”