Skip to content

Bengtsson highlights darker side of youth academy soccer

Oct 6, 2012, 8:54 AM EDT

FC Internazionale Milano v ACF Fiorentina - Serie A Getty Images

“There’s something very, very wrong with the way of treating players and the mentality of how we see if you’re strong enough.”

From time to time, we see words like those used to describe American football. There we’ve come to expect battlefield metaphors to extend beyond the field. They may seem excessive, but you know what you’re getting into when you play a game that involves body armor.

We don’t expect those words to apply to soccer, but for Martin Bengtsson, a former player on Sweden’s U-19 national team, they’re his warning to young players whose dreams of stardom obscure the reality of club youth development. They’re a message from a man whose academy experience had him cut his own wrists.

Back in 2004, Bengtsson was signed by Italian powerhouse Inter Milan. He was 17 years old. As he told the BBC’s World Football program, his time at the club became like “prison.”

“I needed to escape and the razors became my way out. I cut as hard as I could, I needed to get out … I was really sick, I heard voices and I started to lose the feeling of whether it was night or day. What I remember is that I was walking around in a big cloud and I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Not every player can be Lionel Messi, swept from Argentina as a 13-year-old to Barcelona’s idyllic La Masia. Some players are merely swept away. Most fail, and as they do, they persist in environments where the main measuring stick is whether a club’s investment in you will be rewarded.

The players are separated from their families. They’re learning new languages and cultures - how to be on their own at a very young age. Often they’re dropping out of school.

For Bengtsson, the cultural shift seems to have ben too much. Moving to the intensity of Italy’s soccer world from the relatively placid surroundings of Sweden, Bengtsson was surprised at club discipline that punished the entire team for individual mistakes. He reacted strongly when returning from time with Sweden to find song lyrics thrown out and his guitar privileges taken away.

For many, this type of discipline would be expected, particularly in the world of professional team sports – particularly at the level of Inter Milan. But that doesn’t mean that world is for everybody.

Bengtsson’s reaction may have been more severe than most, but thousands of young men across the globe are going through the same process. Many will succeed. Most will not. A few will risk falling into the same depression as Bengtsson.

As much as people envy professional soccer players, their paths are not without risk. If they stray off course, somebody’s not always there to guide them back on the road. Even if they’re only 17 years old.

Bengtsson recovered. He moved away from soccer. He’s currently a musician back in Sweden, part of the punk rock group Waldemaar. He’s also an aspiring novelist.

Latest Posts
  1. Henry, Sam goals see New York break into the win column

    Apr 16, 2014, 10:22 PM EDT

    Thierry Henry 4

    It took six-and-a-half weeks, but last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners have their first victory of the season.

  2. WATCH: All the goals, highlights from the Premier League’s mid-week matches

    Apr 16, 2014, 9:40 PM EDT

    arsenal AP

    Three matches the shoot up the title, Champions League races:

  3. Ranking the candidates for MLS’s next expansion team (after Atlanta’s Wednesday announcement)

    Apr 16, 2014, 8:57 PM EDT

    MLS Logo

    One location is the clear favor for No. 24, but down to one slot, the competition could pick up.

  4. With Agüero, Negredo removed, should we point the finger at Pellegrini?

    Apr 16, 2014, 7:57 PM EDT

    manuel_pellegrini Getty Images

    Like his players, City’s boss has plenty of questions to answer after Wednesday’s disappointment.

  5. Atlanta, MLS don’t need to quiet doubts to be successful in the Southeast

    Apr 16, 2014, 6:52 PM EDT

    Arthur Blank AP

    If Atlanta, Miami aren’t good sports towns, it may not matter. The doubts critics have cast on the league’s Southeast excursion may be irrelevant.

  6. Real Madrid beat Barcelona to win Copa del Rey, as Bale’s brilliance seals it

    Apr 16, 2014, 5:40 PM EDT

    Gareth Bale AP

    Real win Copa del Rey as Barcelona’s bad run continues:

  7. It’s official: Atlanta gets Major League Soccer’s 22nd franchise

    Apr 16, 2014, 5:26 PM EDT

    Arthur Blank AP

    One more spot in MLS’s planned expansion is gone, with Atlanta set to begin play in 2017.

  8. Manchester City 2-2 Sunderland: Two Wickham goals, late Nasri equalizer leave sides even (video)

    Apr 16, 2014, 4:52 PM EDT

    connor_wickham Getty Images

    Two late goals gave Sunderland a lead, one City pulled back just before full-time.

  9. Everton 2-3 Crystal Palace: Toffees’ top four hopes take huge hit

    Apr 16, 2014, 4:51 PM EDT

    Everton v Crystal Palace - Premier League Getty Images

    Eagles soar to safety, but Everton’s Champions League dreams are in ruins:

  10. Fernando Llorente: Carlos Tévez and I deserve to go to the World Cup

    Apr 16, 2014, 3:37 PM EDT

    Italy Soccer Serie A AP

    Two of Serie A’s most productive scorers may not be at this summer’s World Cup. Llorente wonders why.

  11. WATCH: Premier League Player of the Week – Week 34

    Apr 16, 2014, 2:56 PM EDT

    Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard AP

    Which Liverpool player picked up the Player of the Week accolade?

  12. Watch Live: Manchester City vs. Sunderland (Lineups and Discuss)

    Apr 16, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT

    sergio_aguero Getty Images

    Both sides look to cash in on matches in hand at the Etihad.

  13. Watch Live: Everton vs. Crystal Palace (Lineups and Discuss)

    Apr 16, 2014, 2:25 PM EDT

    Everton v Aston Villa - Premier League Getty Images

    Can Tim Howard and the Toffees win their eighth-straight game? Watch live online, right here:

  14. Ahead of Atlanta’s expected MLS entry, are NFL stadium shares the way to go?

    Apr 16, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    Source: AtlantaFalcons.com Source: AtlantaFalcons.com

    Having MLS teams share their home with NFL sides could be a smart move ahead of the next wave of expansion:

  15. WATCH: Premier League Team of the Week – Week 34

    Apr 16, 2014, 1:28 PM EDT

    Liverpool's defense still looked leaky, but a mistake from Kompany saved them. AP

    Find out who made the PL Team of the Week, right here:

  16. Premier League Preview: Man City host Sunderland, Everton face Palace

    Apr 16, 2014, 12:35 PM EDT

    Britain Soccer Premier League AP

    Two PL matches take place on Wednesday, with both set to impact the top and bottom of the standings:

  17. NBC to air all 10 Premier League games on final day in “Championship Sunday” extravaganza

    Apr 16, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT

    nbcsports_new

    Watch all 10 PL games across 10 different channels on final day of the season. All the details, right here:

  18. Revealed: Best quotes from Andrea Pirlo’s new autobiography

    Apr 16, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Andrea Pirlo in a Champions League match for Juventus. AP

    PlayStation, mafia-style fights, Gattuso and not feeling pressure… welcome to the extremely cool world of Pirlo:

Featured video

PST Extra: Race for the PL title