Tigers: a raw, revealing portrait of the beautiful game and its mental health hazards

Based on a true story, the second feature from director Ronnie Sandahl is a painful look at the psychological pressures involved in professional football – though it might’ve dug a little deeper into its protagonist.

Eric Enge as Martin Bengtsson in Tigers (2020)

Bright lights, big city, huge stadium. A story arc for a young man’s dream of soccer stardom might touch on a few obvious marker posts: strained familial relationships as a teenager gazes out to the horizon, the melancholy of leaving home, antagonism with several peers and closer friendship with one or two, the big game and the release it brings, the media spotlight, and ultimate emergence as a more complete man on the pitch, accompanied by the admiring commentary of Sky Sports’s Martin Tyler or similar. All of which happens in Goal! (2005), the sunlit archetype of a working-class lad’s journey to fulfilment via the big leagues of European football, and a film to which Tigers stands in almost complete opposition.

Based on Martin Bengtsson’s autobiographical record of his experiences as a 16-year-old member of Inter Milan’s youth set-up in 2003, Tigers shows a young man being worn down by the pressures of his own ambitions and the doubts in his head, brutalised to the point of self-destruction by the forces giving him exactly what he wants. That Internazionale is a capitalist enterprise that runs on the young men thrown into the grinder as feedstock should not be much of a revelation, although director Ronnie Sandahl opts for a delicate line between criticism and accommodation of the powers running the show. Bengtsson (Erik Enge) represents a significant financial commitment for the club, and when the team administrators make attempts to accommodate the player’s increasingly wayward and passive-aggressive behaviour, it could be in-loco-parentis compassion or just protection of the balance sheet.

What it doesn’t appear to involve is any understanding of male mental health, something the Inter Milan machine seems unequipped to deal with even if it were inclined to do so. Bengtsson’s 2007 book In the Shadow of San Siro was taken as a significant step towards illuminating the pressures under which young footballers operate when the big clubs come calling and the mental damage that the production line can cause, and Tigers is an earnest statement of the same concerns.

Part of this earnestness involves taking its subject’s vulnerabilities at face value and not actually probing Bengtsson’s mind or its fragility too deeply – perhaps an understandable stance when real-life agonies are involved, although in a dramatisation you might expect the protagonist to be the subject of some level of character exploration by the writer and director. Bengtsson comes from a broken home, his father long gone and his mother clearly carrying scars of her own, and there is a suggestion that depression might have been a factor before the talent scouts ever turned up. But the context of Bengtsson’s distress is less important to the film than the distress itself. The first blow occurs immediately upon arrival, when Martin discovers that he will not be granted a private room and will be sharing with other young men, a shorthand for several potential problems to which Tigers subtly alludes while leaving them unspoken. The dislike from those other academy players, on the other hand, is voiced and given a specific cause: resentment of the fact that Bengtsson was the club’s most expensive youth signing, putting him on a pedestal he never asked for.

How good Bengtsson actually is at football is not the film’s concern either. He scores from a free kick and mutters “So fucking easy,” but in all the matches seen on-screen Sandahl keeps the camera tightly on Enge and isolates him from the other players and the wider field of play, without so much as an aerial shot or a crowd reaction to put Bengtsson’s skill at the beautiful game into context. A man alone in a crowd of 21 other people, Bengtsson simmers with unhappiness, even though he must have earned his stripes in similar circumstances.

Flailing in ever deeper water and pushing away the sympathies of model Vibeke (Frida Gustavsson), someone else who is all too familiar with being judged on physical value, Bengtsson’s breakdown includes bloodily chiselling the braces off his teeth with a pair of scissors as a potent symbol of lost innocence. He also squeals like an injured pig in front of the peers he now has no time for, an excruciating act of debasement. Disproving the old Dr. Johnson maxim, Bengtsson makes a beast of himself and doesn’t get rid of any pain at all.

► Tigers is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.