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Tigers—story of a young talent ruined by a sport where players are a commodity

The true story of Martin Bengtsson is a journey through a modern football industry where everyone has a price tag
Issue 2811
Erik Enge as Martin Bengtsson ready to step on the pitch at Inter Milan's San Siro, in a still from the film Tigers

In Tigers, Martin has finally made it when he plays for Inter Milan at home—or has he?

What if you achieve your childhood dream only to find out it isn’t what you always wanted? That’s the question posed by Tigers, the true story of a Swedish teenage footballing prodigy who lands a place in Inter Millan’s ­prestigious youth academy.

Martin Bengtsson (Erik Enge) is a skinny and awkward 16 year old who is completely obsessed with the game. He directs every aspect of his life towards his playing career. His diary is a series of hectoring notes to self, demanding greater concentration but simultaneously “less overthinking”. Every waking moment is filled with practice and exercise.

When not so absorbed, Martin is to be found twitching and nervously picking at scabs, knowing that every minute is wasted training time. When his big deal with Inter arrives it should mark the culmination of all that effort but instead it turns to disaster.

Tigers director Ronnie Sandahl has his documentary-style camera follow Martin into the dormitory where he is bunked with dozens of other young players looking for their big chance. It is a cauldron of pent-up fear, aggression and rivalry. Martin discovers he hasn’t joined a team but something more akin to a footballing version of The Hunger Games.

On the pitch, players turn on each other in a bid for their coach’s recognition. Off the pitch, that same coach engages in all manner of mind games to test the mental strength of the club’s “investments” and to keep the players “hungry”.

The stress and solitude take their toll on Martin. Isolated by both his age and his inability to speak even a modicum of Italian, he struggles to form even basic relationships.

Then he meets American goalkeeper Ryan (Alfred Enoch). Ryan takes Martin under his wing for a period, but then finds himself sold to lowly Hull City before the young Swede could get too comfortable.

Martin’s moment finally comes when he is selected for the first team in a home game. The magnificent San Siro stadium is packed and Inter are on a roll. But when Martin comes off the bench the game becomes a series of distorted fragments. The result is a disconcerting mess of Martin’s tangled emotions combined with changing room mundanities and the signing of autographs.

Afterwards, just in case Martin thought he’d made it, a coach tells him the only reason he was selected was to increase his potential resale value. Tigers takes a big swipe at the abuse culture that reigns in football. But it leaves open a question of whether Martin’s ultimate departure was alone the result of the poisonous environment, or of his own mental fragility.

Resolving that question sets the film quite a high bar, but it’s one that Tiger should have at least tried to answer.

  • Tigers is in cinemas from Friday 1 July. It is based on the memoir In the Shadow of San Siro by Martin Bengtsson

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