“Tigers” ends triumphantly because Martin Bengtsson – the protagonist whose real-life story is based on the film – survives.

But in Milan, his dream and his career fell apart. After nine months in Italy, Bengtsson developed depression following an injury and attempted suicide by slicing 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.

Encouraged by his therapist, Bengtsson began writing to process his experiences in Milan and to quash rumors that he had left after getting involved in drugs.

“I was angry about what happened and that can be a big, big writing engine,” he told CNN Sport.

“And while I was doing that, I also realized more and more that it was the story that was missing. No one had told it from the inside.”

When Bengtsson published his memoir “In the Shadow of the San Siro” in 2007, it was one of the first accounts of its kind, even FIFPRO – the world players’ union – did not begin to carry out studies on the mental health than in 2013.

After Bengtsson published his book, he moved to Berlin where he met filmmaker and writer Ronnie Sandahl in 2011 and the two became good friends.

“I knew Ronnie was a very, very good writer, one of the greatest of his generation,” Bengtsson said. “And so I knew…it would be a good movie…I believed in it.”

Nine years later, Sandahl has brought Bengtsson’s story to the screen as ‘Tigers’, which hits UK cinemas on July 1.

Sandahl’s film won critical acclaim and was nominated as Sweden’s entry for best international feature film at the Oscars last year.

The film’s title refers to how caged animals are kept as tourist attractions, and cage-like designs are scattered throughout the film.

Erik Enge plays Bengtsson in the film

The metal bars seem to follow Sandahl’s portrayal of Bengtsson everywhere he goes: on his dorm window, in nightclubs, and even the stadium itself becomes a kind of cage.

“It’s true to the essence of this boy fighting for his dream, being trapped in the dream and trying to find a way out somehow,” Bengtsson says, recalling 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 entirely dependent on football.

Its importance was such that football turned out to be the code with which actor Erik Enge understood and interpreted the character.

“I had this fantastic personal trainer who just built my body to look like a football player,” Enge told CNN Sport.

“Rather than just the mental way of reading a script…I was able to get into Martin’s head through physical labor.”

Bengtsson’s routine, as well as his identity, revolved around becoming a professional footballer.

He would follow his own training schedule for three hours a day, while playing at his club.

In one scene, Bengtsson's fictional teammates pin him down and pour a bottle of milk over him.

This tension between becoming the best individual player or the best team player has shaped Bengtsson’s relationship with his teammates, in film and in real life.

Less than 1% of players who join the academies as early as possible, at age nine, become a professional footballer, according to ESPN.

So close to a professional contract and beating the odds, the film depicts the competition between teammates as far exceeding the competition with their opponents.

“Ultimately it’s all about you and your career, even if you’re on a team,” Sandahl told CNN.

‘A funhouse mirror’

Bengtsson’s book and Sandahl’s film expose a side of football that isn’t normally talked about.

“The world of football almost functions as a fun mirror for topics like masculinity or capitalism,” says Sandahl. “It’s practically a world where you buy and sell humans.”

The youth football market is a multi-billion dollar industry.

A study by the CIES Football Observatory found that English clubs alone raised more than $2.17 billion between July 2015 and February 2022 through the transfer of players who graduated from their youth academy who had been at the club for at least three years.

Such sums of money can somewhat mask the youthfulness of these players.

“I’ve heard…from people who have seen the movie that they can’t watch a game the same way anymore because they suddenly see some boys there who are quite young and they suddenly become human beings,” Sandahl said. said.

"tigers"  marks Sandahl's second feature film as a director and his fourth as a writer.

Although Bengtsson’s story was set in 2004, the film is set in the present day against the backdrop of social media.

Social media, combined with the injection of even more money into football, is tempering the potential mental health gains made in recent years, suggests Bengtsson.

“Now, [young footballers] are in the spotlight in a whole different way today,” he says. “So I think even though we talk about it more, the challenges have kind of passed the stage.

According to a 2015 study by FIFPRO, 38% of active professional footballers said they had experienced symptoms of depression.

Football governing bodies have implemented some changes in an effort to improve players’ mental health.

Under its regulations for the 2021/22 season, the English Premier League has required a Grade 1 academy – the name given to almost all Premier League clubs and several Championship clubs – to employ at least one psychologist at full-time. e

Club owners and coaches, however, can do much more to ease the pressures young players face by learning more about the “psychological level in sport”, Bengtsson said.

“[They can start] to see how this enormous pressure…that you work for so much money and how it affects [you]. Or just to walk into an arena and have that massive crowd staring at you. What does it do to a person?

“And, of course, you can think when you see it from the outside or when you see it from the fans like, ‘Wow, what a feeling.’ It’s also scary to have that.”

CNN has contacted FIFA and Inter Milan for comment.

“The Cost in the End”

These problems are not unique to football. Last year, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles pulled out of the French Open and several Tokyo Olympics events respectively to prioritize their mental health.

Tennis and gymnastics feature in two of Sandahl’s other films, “Borg vs McEnroe” and “Perfect,” which he considers a loose trilogy in conjunction with “Tigers,” exploring the psychology behind sports stars.

They each unpack the “enormous pressure” young athletes face in their quest for greatness, and Sandahl sees similarities in each discipline.

“It’s a world that encourages extreme human beings to go all the way despite the very high cost and then [the athletes] are left alone with that cost in the end,” says Sandahl.

“Because everyone who encourages these young athletes to go all the way, they’re not there when they’re not in the spotlight.”

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