Based on the true story of former footballer Martin Bengtsson, Tigers questions the often-high price of success in elite sports.

Martin Bengtsson is only 16 years old when his childhood dream comes true. A young and promising football player, he’s bought by top Italian club Inter Milan. Uprooted from his life in Sweden, he travels to Italy to prove he’ll do whatever it takes to be successful in his field. The tale is based on a true story, drawing inpiration from Bengtsson’s memoir In The Shadow Of San Siro. 

Erik Enge puts in a memorable performance as the young footballer, as the film chronicles his troubled experience trying to be the best of the best. It’s possible for Bengtsson to achieve greatness, but Tigers asks if the cost of that success, especially with regards to mental health, is really worth it. It’s an important issue to draw attention to, and the story is competently told by director Ronnie Sandahl, but the drama has problems with pacing and characters that lead to it being less compelling than it could be.

From the first time Martin enters the house he shares with the team, it becomes clear his dream may not be what he imagined. He’s isolated by the language barrier and his teammates seem to have already decided they don’t like him. Enge gives a serious and subdued performance, but you can still see the hurt and disappointment in his expressive eyes. None of these other players are developed on a personal level, they’re simply motivated by a need to excel and a fear of slipping down the ranks. This is a world in which the players are property to be bought and sold at the discretion of others.

Martin himself doesn’t get much attention either. It’s established that he’s a fairly normal kid who’s moving away from home for the first time. His mother (not seen much) is protective yet supportive, and his father is estranged. This is left largely unexplained, and avoided through Martin’s unwillingness to talk about him. Enge is tense throughout the film, rarely diverging from his steely-eyed, stone-faced expression. The exception being when he finds rare moments of respite between training, like learning to drive with his American teammate Ryan (Harry Potter‘s Alfred Enoch, who’s extremely charismatic). As such, his serious expression is often overplayed, and the performance falls flat over the course of the runtime.

As Martin is asked to sacrifice more and more of himself for his success, and told not to be ‘distracted’ by outside influences, you’d expect a slow build of tension of up to his eventual breaking point. However, this escalation plays out very suddenly. While prior to this Martin certainly makes sacrifices for his career, the situation spirals shortly after with little warning. While a shocking moment marks the beginning of this, it’s jarring that the pace goes straight from zero to a hundred.

What Tigers excels at is not so much telling the story of its characters, but illustrating the injustices in the way professional footballers are treated. The club managers are undeveloped but demanding figures who control every aspect of their players’ lives and demand they sacrifice everything to play in the big leagues. It shows the horrible environment Martin has been thrown into, but takes its time showing how deeply this affects him, and rushes things when it finally does get into it.

While it’s important to draw attention to the ill treatment of professional sports competitors and the mental health issues they may face, Tigers doesn’t go about it in a compelling way for me. The lead character feels often too subdued to be really empathised with, and the pacing is regrettably uneven. It’s an ambitious drama, but one that doesn’t quite live up to what it’s trying to be.

Tigers will be released in UK cinemas on 1st July 2022.

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