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Film highlights the mental health pressures facing young footballers

A film on Martin Bengtsson, a former Inter Milan academy player who attempted suicide, will be released in UK cinemas on Friday with the aim of highlighting the mental health pressures put on young footballers.

Ronnie Sandahl’s movie ‘TIGERS’ shows the journey a teenage Bengtsson went through from being signed to huge hype by the Serie A giants in 2004 to trying to take his own life nine months later in the midst of a gripping battle with depression.

Former Sweden youth international Bengtsson would eventually quit Italy and football altogether but his journal at Inter was turned into a book titled ‘In the shadow of San Siro’ and after Sandahl’s autobiographical drama earned much acclaim in Italy in 2020, it will now reach an English audience.

It could have been a very different story for the one-time protégé, considering his suicide attempt, but he is pleased it can be used to help others.

“I am very happy I am here today and I regret that it had to go that far,” Bengtsson told the PA news agency ahead of TIGERS UK release on July 1.

“I have forgiven myself for that, that it went that far but it is a hard thing to talk about. It is a tough thing for my family and those who are close around me that this happened, the journey of healing from that as well but this movie is part of the journey.

“This movie is part of the healing to revisit it, talk about it and slowly get distance to it. When it turns into fiction, it is ‘OK it is this story’ and it helps that it can be helpful for others that it turns into discussion.

“Other young players and people in general can see themselves in these feelings and hopefully feel a little bit less alone.”

The core story of TIGERS remains true to Bengttson’s with Inter of being made promises, like having his own room, which would later not be kept and how isolated he felt at being given no help with Italian lessons or at the lack of support he received off the pitch in how to deal with such a huge move.

The events happened in 2003 but Sandah has transported the drama into modern times with mentions of Instagram and more recent superstars like Andrea Pirlo and Javier Zanetti.

Martin Bengtsson during an interview with PA (screengrab)

Bengttson is handed a debut in the film – something that failed to happen in reality – but the main essence of the drama is to show the struggles players in academies face, like team-mate rivalries that can overstep the line or pressure to take “your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” which senior staff consistently reference. This all tipped the Swede over the edge.

While his attempted suicide is shown tastefully in TIGERS – with Bengttson running on a motorway at night time and into the direction of a lorry, with the actual contact not actually shown – in real life a different method was used but what remained truthful were his successful attempts to insist he was fine.

He added: “I was very good at hiding my emotions and that is part of an ongoing topic in the movie, which is masculinity and how we learn from an early age to hide our feelings.

“It is a big topic in the book as well. It was hard to notice and this is the case with a lot of men who take their life all of a sudden and yeah, people say ‘we didn’t see anything’ and that work has to start earlier with boys and men to start to depict emotions.

“I hide it in myself because there was a shame, there was a fright that if I say out loud how I feel that it could destroy the dream or change the course of what I put as a goal.

“It is something he struggles with, Martin, and that he is good at many ways to hide what he feels. That is very dangerous for men to do. Either this violence will be directed to others or it will be directed to yourself if you don’t get in contact with your vulnerability.”

Bengttson may have stepped away from playing football before he reached 20 but he has remained involved in the sport through writing and annually gives a lecture to Swedish national youth-team players.

He still believes more can be done by academies and knows the issue of depression is rife in football with a 2020 FIFPro study revealing 35 per cent of the 1,602 men and women professionals surveyed had shown symptoms consistent with being diagnosed with depression.

“I get the chance to talk to people who were in the situation I was and it differs,” Bengtsson revealed.

“Some people are in England, they have a great time with a very professional academy or in Italy or Holland. And then there are some players who are in the same countries who feel it is terrible, which says this is exactly how it was shown in the movie or written in my book. Nothing has changed.

“I think there are still a lot of big clubs who need to work with their organisations, basically.

“You have doctors for almost every bone in the body for these big clubs for the arm, the leg but very little for the soul or the head, very little. They should put the effort, the money and the resources into that.”