Tigers is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
We celebrate their success, drool over their fitness and idolise their talent, but how often do we look at our sports stars as people? It’s an interesting question that surrounds the world of professional sports. From football to diving or rugby, we cheer the success of our favourite athletes and teams and boo their failures; we buy shirts with their names printed on the back but quickly adopt a new favourite when they fail. Over many years, one could argue that our sports stars have become commodities as money increases, and sport has become a multi-million-pound business. Of course, this is not the case in all sports. But in football, the past thirty years have been transformative. Here, clubs have got bigger, money has become synonymous with success, and footballers pass between clubs for eye-watering transfer deals of £60 million or more.
Young people look upon their footballing idols with pride and envy as they kick a ball around their local park with their mates. Here they dream of making it big and earning the coveted slot in their favourite team. After all, for many of these kids, those sums of money could be life-changing, not only for them but for their families, and all they have to do is play the game they love, right? Many are unaware of the sacrifices those players have made from a young age or the mental impact their decision to pursue their dream has taken. That doesn’t mean they aren’t lucky or that the fortune they rake in isn’t life-changing, but are they happy? Are they free? And are they content? After all, no matter their celebrity, price tag and prowess, they are people, just like you and me.
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In 2003, Martin Bengtsson was a talented 16-year-old signed up by the Inter Milan youth team after success in several Swedish clubs. Bengtsson was a promising talent. Yet, after just nine months with the Italian club, he quit due to the mental impact of the closed, oppressive, insular training regime.
From writer-director Ronnie Sandahl (Borg McEnroe), Tigers is based on Martin Bengtsson’s 2007 autobiography. However, this is no word-for-word adaptation set in 2003. Here Sandahl’s movie is set in the present, in an industry that has only grown in value over the years since Martin walked onto the pitch. Martin’s journey is placed into the hands of Erik Enge, who offers us a truly exceptional performance as he explores the pressures of a life divided in two and the inner strength of a young man who knew when it was time to walk away. Sandahl’s intense, atmospheric and powerful snapshot of nine months in the life of one young man attempting to keep his head above water is a claustrophobic, character-driven piece that rides on Enge’s performance. Here we are offered a sports drama that also feels like a classic coming-of-age tale.
Sandahl’s exploration of players as possessions and commodities is decisive; for example, a scene where Bengtsson’s teeth are being checked feels like an antique dealer meticulously checking a piece of furniture before deciding its worth. Here Bengtsson is an expensive gamble that needs to be wrapped up and protected off the pitch – a sculpted and malleable body rather than a human with emotions and feelings.
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As Bengtsson progresses through the first months of his move, the barriers of culture, language and expectation gnaw away at his soul; his only confidant, an American player named Ryan (Alfred Enoch), who also doesn’t fit in. Here Sandahl explores the toxic and competitive atmosphere of the changing room and clubhouse, with each player encouraged to stamp on the other in achieving their final goals. It’s less about the team and more about the individual as we near the final scenes, where Bengtsson’s life slowly unravels under mounting pressure. Here the final act is wrapped in isolation and fear as the dream shatters into a million pieces before being pieced together to form something new.
I caught up with Martin Bengtsson, Ronnie Sandahl, Eric Enge, Alfred Enoch and producer Piodor Gustafsson at the UK premiere to discuss Tigers journey to the screen and its urgent messages on mental health in sport.
Tigers UK Premiere – Photo Credit: Eddy Massarella
Neil: [Piodor] How long did it take to bring Tigers to the screen?
Piodor: It was a long journey and took some time to finance. From the moment Ronnie approached me as a producer to the point where we shot the film was almost four years.
Neil: [Piodor] Did you ever think Tigers would become the OSCAR entry for Sweden?
Piodor: Not really. I mean, you just try to create the best film you can. I think we delivered a really good movie, and we had a great festival tour from Busan to Rome and Göteborg, and the film had a great reception at each one with some wins along the way, and of course, being an Oscar nominee was wonderful.
Neil: [Ronnie] How did you go about casting the role of Martin? Was it a challenge to find the right person?
Ronnie: I was really nervous about that part because it’s the make or break of the film. We needed to find someone young enough to look like he was 16 but old enough to carry the whole movie. But when I met with Eric, I immediately felt I had the right person. He had the rare combination of fragility and brutality that I was searching for, but he was really thin, so we had to put him into training for a year to bulk up.
Neil: Wow, that’s a real commitment!
Ronnie: It was a huge commitment, but Eric just went for it!
Neil: [Eric], your performance is outstanding.
Eric: Thank you. I went through the physical route to get into character and had a bit over a year to work out and get the body of a professional footballer. It was very interesting for me because generally, as an actor, you get into character through the mind rather than the body.
Neil: [Eric] Did you spend much time with Martin in forming the character?
Eric: We met a couple of times, but we decided quite early on that I was not attempting to portray him as a person but instead creating a character based on his life. So, I kind of had the freedom to do what I wanted to do with the character. Ronnie allowed that creative freedom, which was great.
Neil: [Alfred] can I ask you what drew you to the film?
Alfred: It was just the writing and a happy accident that it was also an awesome screenplay about football; I love football. We spent two days filming football scenes, and I was there with my gloves on, standing in the goal, having players who played third-tier Italian football shooting at me. But the writing drew me in, and that’s a testament to Ronnie as an artist, writer and director. Ronnie works collaboratively; he’s really interested in the actors and what they bring to their characters. I was interested in exploring this world’s trappings, you know? What’s the other side we don’t see?
Neil: [Martin] Do you think things have improved in the mental health services offered to players since you left the game?
Martin: I think a change has happened. I mean, my story took place in 2003 and 2004. But the film took place in 2020. During that time, awareness has improved around mental health in sports. When I meet young players, many comment that there are now far more sports therapists available in their club, but they also say the pressure is worse than ever. The money involved is much bigger today than when I played, plus they have the exposure of social media. Discussion and dialogue must be continuous, and I hope this movie helps.
Tigers is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
Sandahl’s intense, atmospheric and powerful snapshot of nine months in the life of one young man attempting to keep his head above water is a claustrophobic, character-driven piece that rides on Enge’s performance.