If Martin Bengtsson feels stressed he kicks a football around on his own and, almost immediately, the tension begins to ebb away. “Nowadays I play for meditation,” he says. “I have a very natural and close relationship with the ball; we still have a good rapport.”
Bengtsson is 36 but, 20 years ago, his first touch was so seamlessly adhesive that opponents could have been forgiven for believing he and footballs were inseparable. The then Sweden youth international was such a gifted midfielder that he was swiftly snapped up by Internazionale’s academy; which is where everything went wrong.
He arrived in Milan hyped as one of the biggest talents Sweden had produced but departed less than a year later in the grip of severe depression apparently exacerbated by, among other things, a distinct lack of paternalism or emotional intelligence on the part of Inter’s staff.
According to Bengtsson, not content with failing to provide him with Italian lessons they tore up the sheets of paper covered with the creative writing he had begun producing in his free time. Eventually, the prodigy, did the unthinkable and walked out before turning his back on the game.
These days a man whose creativity was most definitely not confined 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 out to bring Bengtsson’s story to the big screen and the fulfilment of this pledge has been well worth waiting for.
“I used writing as a way of relieving pressure in the football world but now I usually go out with a football when I need to relax from working with words,” jokes the former midfielder, who spent several years touring as a successful, gifted musician before settling down to write full time. “The movie and TV industry is high-pressure so it helps me deal with it.”
Sandahl, a fellow Swede, has brought Bengtsson’s words to cinematic life and clearly enjoyed immersing himself in a parallel, often almost hermetically sealed, universe he had known only at arms length as a QPR fan.
“The football industry’s a buffet of absurdity and strangeness,” says Sandahl. “It’s a world of often extreme masculinity where you can actually buy and sell humans.
“Media and fans all over the world are putting these young players in a really strange position. A 15-year-old in Manchester United’s academy can actually be famous. You can suddenly be worth €40m so the pressure’s just tremendous. Particularly with social media ”
The book is set in 2004 but the film, although heavily biographical, is fast-forwarded almost two decades. The advent of Instagram et al apart, much remains the same. “It’s super-strange,” says Sandahl. “The most frequently recurring comment I’ve got from professional players who’d moved abroad is that they’re not taught the language. They think they’ll get all these lessons and it doesn’t happen.”
Tigers blends art-house ambience with authenticity. “The players and coaches I’ve spoken to recognise a lot from their own lives,” says Sandahl. “They feel it’s very accurate. They all also always say right away for me not to ever use their name because it’s not done to talk about depression or bullying. Especially among young players it’s almost impossible to talk about how you feel. You fear, if you do, you won’t be playing on Saturday.
“Coaches also say: ‘Sure we have two psychologists but players are wary of talking to them because the risk of it getting back to the club makes it impossible.’ I get the impression a lot of clubs have psychologists on their payroll almost as a PR thing.”
Bengtsson is the father of a two-year-old and engaged, and can see that Inter never became the surrogate family he craved. “I really hope this movie can create a discussion about academies,” he says. “Coaches need to understand the psychology that comes with the pressure of earning a lot of money, or being close to earning 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 it didn’t happen. Language is such a super-central part of enabling you to integrate and, without it, I was that much more lost and alone. There were times when I felt completely excluded.”
The old mantra about the survival of the fittest hardly helped either. “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-school psychology.
“Nowadays I’m not so annoyed about people not seeing what was happening to me but there are situations that happened at Inter 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 football people shouldn’t be writing. That wasn’t right.
“I became very good at hiding my emotions. That’s an important masculinity problem the movie highlights: hide your feelings if you want to be part of the group.”
Sandahl brilliantly captures the absurdity, fantasy, fabulousness and, sometimes, sheer grind of the football industry through a teenager’s eyes. His insistence on ensuring on-pitch scenes were filmed with players spending long periods without even touching the ball heightens the sense of reality. Meanwhile the game’s sometimes dangerously edgy humour 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 lose many of the most intelligent, creative players, the sensitive kids.”
Along the way young protégés also experience adolescence. “I wanted to get Martin’s sense of discovering the world,” he says. “So the film’s also about a 16-year-old who has his first kiss, first girlfriend, has sex for the first time, a first experience of getting drunk and buys his first car.”
Despite its searing, unsparing, exploration of teenage depression and often dysfunctional football men, Tigers has a happy ending. “This is not a film about winning and losing a match,” 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 1 July.