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. MLS Snapshot: FC Dallas 0-0 Seattle Sounders

    Mar 28, 2015, 10:41 PM EDT

    Zach Loyd, FC Dallas Zach Loyd, FC Dallas

    A disappointing result for FCD, given Seattle’s lack of Dempsey and Martins, but a great one considering their early red card.

  2. MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 Portland Timbers

    Mar 28, 2015, 10:06 PM EDT

    Vancouver Whitecaps Vancouver Whitecaps

    Three more points for Vancouver, who win it late on Robert Earnshaw’s Whitecaps debut. He scores for everyone.

  3. MLS Snapshot: D.C. United 1-0 LA Galaxy

    Mar 28, 2015, 9:15 PM EDT

    D.C. United D.C. United

    It was the late, late, late show at RFK Stadium, and despite being thoroughly outplayed, D.C. United go home with three points.

  4. MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 0-1 Sporting Kansas City

    Mar 28, 2015, 9:04 PM EDT

    Ike Opara, Sporting Kansas City Ike Opara, Sporting Kansas City

    Sporting KC get their first victory of the season, while NYCFC suffer their first defeat of the year — and history.

  5. EURO 2016 qualifying roundup: Netherlands, Italy rescue draws; Bale, Wales go top

    Mar 28, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT

    Gareth Bale, Wales Gareth Bale, Wales

    It wasn’t a great day to be a traditional European giant, but it was a great day to be Gareth Bale and Wales.

  6. MLS Snapshot: New England Revolution 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes

    Mar 28, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT

    Kelyn Rowe, New England Revolution Kelyn Rowe, New England Revolution

    A dominant performance — and the three points to match — from the Revs…finally.

  7. Orlando City SC field a four-man bench due to injuries, MLS playing through int’l window

    Mar 28, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT

    Kaka, Orlando City SC Kaka, Orlando City SC

    Think that MLS playing through int’l windows isn’t a big deal? Let’s ask Orlando City what they think about it.

  8. If you only read one story on Sol Campbell today, let it be this one.

    Mar 28, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT

    Preview Screening of 'Invincibles' Getty Images

    Campbell was capped 73 times, and is England’s second-youngest captain. Clearly he knows that, too.

  9. WATCH: Gareth Bale just scored a nice free kick for Wales… if you’re into that sort of thing

    Mar 28, 2015, 2:21 PM EDT

    Israel Wales Euro Soccer AP

    A win would give Wales a two-point lead in Group B with a game-in-hand on both Israel and Cyprus.

  10. Freddy Adu has joined a new club, this one in Finland

    Mar 28, 2015, 1:39 PM EDT

    CBMeXdCVIAAteBM-300x225

    The Canaries finished in 7th place last season in the Veikkausliiga, Finland’s top-flight.

  11. Klinsmann’s USMNT struggles, experimentation in friendlies: Does it really matter?

    Mar 28, 2015, 12:54 PM EDT

    Denmark Soccer Usa AP

    Should the States’ losses in friendlies represent anything other than a concern at the lack of US youth readiness for the big stage?

  12. Liverpool’s Glen Johnson linked with summer move to, January start date with Barcelona

    Mar 28, 2015, 12:08 PM EDT

    Liverpool Training Session Getty Images

    This likely comes as a surprise to Liverpool fans, as Johnson is widely treated rightly or wrongly as a scapegoat by Reds supporters.

  13. Klinsmann explains philosophy behind mad scientist lineups, formations for USMNT

    Mar 28, 2015, 10:37 AM EDT

    Denmark US Soccer AP

    Does the embattled USMNT coach have a point? I’m again bracing for the comment section when I say… I think so.

  14. Russia wants full points from match abandoned after Akinfeev struck in head by flare (video)

    Mar 28, 2015, 8:50 AM EDT

    Russia's Igor Akinfeev hit by flare at Montenegro, match later abandoned Getty Images

    Given UEFA president Michel Platini’s concerned words and warning about fan violence just this week, could he do something even more harsh?

  15. Marsch critical of Klinsmann’s experimentation, lack of USMNT “identity”

    Mar 28, 2015, 7:55 AM EDT

    Jesse Marsch AP

    The States are 1-4 in their last five matches, all four coming on the road (Colombia, Ireland, Chile and Denmark).

  16. Injury update: England likely facing Italy without Welbeck, Sterling

    Mar 27, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT

    England v Slovenia - EURO 2016 Qualifier Getty Images

    Both Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling will most likely be out of England’s friendly vs. Italy on Tuesday.

Featured video

Week 30: Headline PL moment