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. Chelsea 2-2 Barcelona: Good-looking goals to spare in Maryland (video)

    Jul 28, 2015, 10:08 PM EDT

    LANDOVER, MD - JULY 28: Luis Suarez #9 of Barcelona battles with Kurt Zouma #5 of Chelsea in the first half during the International Champions Cup North America at FedExField on July 28, 2015 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Close to 80,000 saw Barcelona move to 1-2 in three ICC matches. Barca finishes off its tourney vs. Fiorentina in Florence on Aug. 2.

  2. WATCH: Juking, solo dribble goal by Newcastle’s Haris Vuckic is quite nice

    Jul 28, 2015, 9:16 PM EDT

    NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - JULY 1: Haris Vuckic smiles during the Newcastle United Pre-Season Training session at The Newcastle United Training Centre on July 1, 2015, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images) Getty Images

    Thank goodness Haris Vuckic’s brother follows his career over the web.

  3. Cavani to sit two games including World Cup qualifier for post-Jara red card

    Jul 28, 2015, 8:43 PM EDT

    SANTIAGO, CHILE - JUNE 24:  Edinson Cavani of Uruguay (L) argues with Gonzalo Jara of Chile (NOT IN FRAME) during the 2015 Copa America Chile quarter final match between Chile and Uruguay at Nacional Stadium on June 24, 2015 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/LatinContent/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Cavani will miss Uruguay’s first CONMEBOL qualifier for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Bolivia will benefit.

  4. Mob Museum in Vegas to open FIFA exhibit in September

    Jul 28, 2015, 7:16 PM EDT

    ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 03: A policeman stands in front of the FIFA headquarters on June 3, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland. Joseph S. Blatter resigned as president of FIFA. The 79-year-old Swiss official, FIFA president for 17 years said a special congress would be called to elect a successor. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Something tell us the exhibit won’t bring in the same sort of interest as the actual wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but it does fit the bill of organized crime.

  5. MLS All Star Game preview: Forecasting the day when the idea is clearly ridiculous

    Jul 28, 2015, 6:11 PM EDT

    COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 28:  (L-R) MLS All-Star Graham Zusi of the Sporting Kansas City, Waylon Francis of the Columbus Crew and DaMarcus Beasley of the Houston Dynamo work out during training ahead of the MLS All-Star Game against the Tottenham Hotspur at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 28, 2015 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Graham Zusi; Waylon Francis; DaMarcus Beasley Getty Images

    Here’s hoping MLS makes the idea of this contest laughable in the next decade, if not sooner. Like tomorrow.

  6. Mexico post-Herrera: Few answers, many questions as El Tri moves forward

    Jul 28, 2015, 5:39 PM EDT

    The president of the Mexican Football Federation Decio de Maria Serrano  announces the dismissal of Mexico's national football team coach Miguel Herrera during a press conference on July 28, 2015 in Mexico City.  Mexico's coach Miguel Herrera was sacked on Tuesday following allegations of an assault against a television journalist, just two days after guiding them to their seventh Gold Cup trophy in the United States.  AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ        (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Who takes over the ship, one in which the majority of the hands reportedly liked playing for Herrera?

  7. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Everton

    Jul 28, 2015, 4:27 PM EDT

    Everton badge

    Will they hold onto Stones and Coleman? If so, expect Everton to be in the Europa League discussion and to make a healthy bid for both Cups.

  8. Official: Miguel Herrera fired by Mexico days after Gold Cup win, alleged attack on journalist

    Jul 28, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT

    150728-Herrera Getty Images

    The nation has now changed men’s national team managers 15 times since 2000, and only two of those changes were caretaker moves.

  9. Done deals: Vidal to Bayern Munich, Luis leaves Chelsea for Atletico Madrid, Crespo to Aston Villa

    Jul 28, 2015, 1:59 PM EDT

    Here’s a look at some of the top deals from another busy day across Europe.

  10. FIFA favorite: Michel Platini set to run for presidency

    Jul 28, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT

    Legendary French midfielder is red-hot favorite to replace Blatter.

  11. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Crystal Palace

    Jul 28, 2015, 12:35 PM EDT

    CrystalPalaceLogo

    Can the Eagles surprise everyone again? With Cabaye running the show, don’t rule it out.

  12. Jose Mourinho ranks Chelsea’s Eden Hazard above Cristiano Ronaldo

    Jul 28, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT

    Eden Hazard AP

    Mourinho: “In my opinion he should be in the top three.”

  13. Raheem Sterling worth $75 million, Manchester City insist

    Jul 28, 2015, 9:54 AM EDT

    FBL-AUS-ENG-ITA-MANCITY-ROMA-CUP FBL-AUS-ENG-ITA-MANCITY-ROMA-CUP

    England international has been ripping it up for City in preseason.

  14. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Chelsea

    Jul 28, 2015, 9:20 AM EDT

    ChelseaLogo

    Mourinho’s men are hungry for trophies. All of them.

  15. ICC preview: Barcelona, Man United, Chelsea, PSG wrap up USA tours this week

    Jul 27, 2015, 9:45 PM EDT

    Diego Costa, Chelsea FC — 2015 International Champions Cup Diego Costa, Chelsea FC — 2015 International Champions Cup

    The Premier League’s big boys each play once more in the USA before heading back to England for the start of the new season.

  16. Stoke City sign ex-Barcelona, PSV winger, free agent Ibrahim Afellay

    Jul 27, 2015, 8:39 PM EDT

    Ibrahim Affelay, FC Barcelona Getty Images

    Afellay makes four ex-Blaugranas on the books at Stoke, where Mark Hughes is aiming for European qualification.

  17. Bundesliga teams are scared of Bayern Munich — It needs to stop, says Mats Hummels

    Jul 27, 2015, 7:56 PM EDT

    Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund

    As Bayern chase their fourth straight Bundesliga title (it would be a first), Mats Hummels says the league’s other teams need to stop fearing them.

  18. Official: Chelsea legend Didier Drogba announced as Montreal Impact Designated Player

    Jul 27, 2015, 6:06 PM EDT

    Didier Drogba, Chelsea FC & Montreal Impact Didier Drogba, Chelsea FC & Montreal Impact

    Drogba has arrived in MLS, and he even got to choose which team he’ll play for — kinda.