If you take a look at Forbes’ annual list of the highest paid athletes in the world, at least two or three of the top five spots are usually occupied by soccer players — and usually the same ones: Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.
It’s no wonder, then, that the dream of becoming a pro footballer, to use the international term, is on the minds of hundreds of thousands of kids across the globe, each of them picturing a seven- or eight-figure contract with a top-tier European club, plus all the perks: sports cars, mansions, models and other accoutrements of a pop star life.
In Tigers (Tigrar), the feature debut of Swedish scribe Ronnie Sandahl (Borg/McEnroe), that dream turns into a nightmare for 16-year-old prodigy Martin Bengtsson (Erik Enge), who’s picked up for a high price by Italy’s legendary FC Inter Milan. But the stress, solitude and sacrifice that the game demands, as well as the military-style regimen inflicted upon the team’s young recruits, will quickly drive Martin over the edge.
What makes his story particularly compelling is that most of it is true. The film is based on Bengtsson’s autobiography, In the Shadow of San Siro — San Siro is Inter Milan’s home stadium, whose capacity of 80,000 makes it the largest in Italy — a book he wrote at the age of 19, two years after giving up his football career for good. The reasons for this are explored with icy determination by writer-director Sandahl, who monitors Martin’s wavering psychological states the way the coaches monitor his every performance on the field, making sure their newest investment pays off.
Tigers presents a cutthroat world where athletes are treated like mere tradable commodities, sold off to another team if the money and timing are right. (Anyone following pro soccer’s annual transfer period knows what this is about.) For Martin, whom Inter Milan has bet considerable money on, there’s pressure to outperform the others in the youth squad so he can make it to the big leagues, where he will play at San Siro and fulfill the wish he’s harbored since childhood.
Sandahl reveals how that pressure is both self-imposed — with Martin putting his body through the wringer to stay in shape, sticking to monastic meals consisting of two boiled eggs (nothing on the side) — but also the result of the team’s soul-crushing group mentality. Inter’s Machiavellian general manager, Galli (Maurizio Lombardi), keeps reminding Martin of the “hunger and desperation” required to become a great player, and his pep talks have all the positive effect of a therapy session with Michael Haneke.
The other players seem to receive the same treatment, ganging up on Martin when he arrives at the dormitory-like mansion they’re confined to during the season. Only one of them, Ryan (Alfred Enoch), an American who plays goalie, takes a liking enough to the young upstart to tell him the truth: that everyone hates him because he was so expensive. The two form a friendship that lasts until Ryan suffers the fate of so many others in their profession, traded off to another team never to be seen again.
Shot in clinically cool widescreen by Marek Septimus Wieser, the film constantly isolates Martin in the frame, whether he’s on the field, where the other players refuse to pass him the ball, or off, where he’s depicted as a lonely kid in a foreign city. When he winds up meeting Vibeke (Frida Gustavsson), a Swedish model who works in Milan’s fashion scene, the two connect not only because of their mutual language and nationalities, but because they both have physical talents that make them bankable.
Martin’s incessant drive to succeed will eventually get the better of that relationship as well, with Sandahl trying to explain his hero’s unraveling as a result of a father who left the family when Martin was a child. Such a backstory, whether true or not, almost seems unnecessary: Tigers is less about a single character’s collapse than it is about a ruthless billion-dollar industry that exploits young talents until they’re either rich and famous like Zlatan Ibrahimović, to cite the great Swedish striker who took home several titles for Inter Milan, or like all the forgotten players who never make it that far and are deemed failures before they ever become adults.
When, about halfway through the film, Martin finally gets his chance to play his first professional game with Inter at San Siro, his childhood dream has managed to come true, but Sandahl gives even that moment a nightmarish quality. The raging fans, some of them beating war drums, and the smoke that covers the stands and creeps onto the field, makes the whole experience seem like a hallucination. Martin looks less euphoric than simply lost. He doesn’t know which way to run.