Martin Bengtsson had wanted to be a footballer for as long as he could remember and here he was playing for Inter Milan. This was supposed to be his dream but he was depressed. He attempted to take his own life. At 19, he quit football for good.
“I had this dream when I was five to play at the San Siro,” Bengtsson tells Sky Sports. “I was very decisive that this was my goal. I had a schedule. I practised for hours every day to achieve it. When I got there I became so close to this goal.
“But when I reached it, something happened to this illusion that I had as a child that brought me such joy. When I saw what it was, the magic just disappeared. The joy of football was trying to get to Italy. The tragic part is that I got very close and it was not for me.”
The extraordinary story of the Swedish wonderkid who walked away from the game for his own health is – almost two decades on – now the subject of an acclaimed movie. Tigers has been showcased at film festivals and was also watched by the Sweden national team.
Thankfully, Bengtsson has survived to see it.
What was it like to be there for the occasion of the film’s premiere in Rome, witnessing the lowest point of his life dramatised for the education but also the entertainment of others? “That was very emotional,” he acknowledges. “Overwhelming, even.”
It has resonated with others.
“What is nice for me is to hear from other players who have been reaching out and feel this movie has touched on experiences and feelings that maybe were not exactly like mine but had similarities. They feel locked into this ‘dream’ in many ways.”
Now 36, he is in a good place. But the movie takes him back.
It is called Tigers because of an analogy mentioned during the movie. One character refers to a tiger in a zoo. “Just imagine,” she says. “They’ve kept it locked up for 20 years, deciding what it should do and eat, selling tickets for people staring at it all day.”
The Bengtsson in the movie empathises. So does the real-life version. The film is directed by Ronnie Sandahl, a friend. “He has recreated the environment, the relationships between players, the feeling of being lost, of being trapped, not knowing the way out.”
There is an important distinction to make about Bengtsson and his story. This is not the tale of a young man who did not want this enough. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I wanted it almost too much,” he explains. “For me, it was really life and death.”
Isolated because of his inability to speak the language, he could not assimilate but felt compelled to press on. He was reminded that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, urged not to throw it away but threatened that there were others itching to take his place.
Right from the start, the reality of life at an Italian super club was not as it had been sold to him. Promised his own room in the contract, he was housed with many other young hopefuls instead. When others were caught with marijuana, they went into lockdown.
“That was the hardest time – to not have the freedom to go out to a restaurant and have this feeling that you were just someone else’s property. That was hard.”
It pushed him to the brink.
“There was also a lot of shame in not making it [into the first-team at Inter] straight away. If you are too hard on yourself you can go into a hole and start playing worse.
“I then felt shame for not being strong enough to go on. I did not want to show that I was weak. I did not want to say that I could not go on. I would rather die.”
The attempt on his life is handled sensitively on screen.
It is all the more powerful for it.
When can the film be seen?
TIGERS will be release in UK cinemas July 1st 2022
“It is important that we speak about our emotions and we have an environment that allows young people to express themselves. If you keep your mouth shut and don’t deal with it, it will come out in violence to others or violence to yourself.”
Is that the lesson to learn from his story?
Perhaps. But that onus is not on the players.
“I get the question a lot, asking me what my advice is to young players these days – as if it should come down to the individual to do something. It is the clubs and the football organisations that need to focus on the mental health of the players.
“You cannot just encourage players to be in this football bubble. There is a life after. You need to see that. Even if you are a football player earning a lot of money, you need to grow as a person. I think it is a responsibility for clubs to understand that as well.
“There has been that attitude for a long time. Who is up for the challenge? Which players are strong enough? The problem is that it is then not necessarily the best players who come out because there are a lot of great players who might be more sensitive.
“This old school survival-of-the-fittest idea does not bring out the best performers. If a player feels good within himself and is secure in his environment he will be a better player.
“I do believe there is a next level for football to go to once you consider the mental side. There are doctors for every bone in the body but very few for the mind and the soul and that is very strange considering what a big business it is.”
What the movie does not detail is what happened to Bengtsson after leaving Inter. He was still just a teenager and a talent whose football adventure was not yet over. “I had a physical need to play. It was like I was a junkie who could not get it any more.”
He began to play at a relatively low level in Sweden.
He began to play too well.
“Six months into this at Orebro I played a good game and the local newspaper wrote that ‘Bengtsson is back’. The line was something about seeing what my next step would be.” It had a profound effect. He had the maturity to see where the path may lead.
“That was the moment that I thought, no, this is not what I want any more.”
He went into journalism for a period, a natural step given his love of writing down his thoughts. “It had started at Inter when I was depressed because it became a way of dealing with it. The writing was an output for my emotions when trapped in this world.”
There was a dalliance with music when he moved to Berlin. Now, he cuts a bohemian figure, working as a scriptwriter back in his native Sweden. “I love it. I found something that suits me very well. There is another type of pressure now with the deadlines and so on.”
But how does he relax? What helps him cope?
The truth is enough to make him laugh at the irony.
“I have found more and more that I take the football out,” he says.
“Football has become what writing was for me. It is interesting how a relationship to an object can change. It is almost meditative now. I have no wish to go back to football. But the football itself I use a lot in my everyday life. It is a tool of relaxation and enjoyment.”
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