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Bengtsson highlights darker side of youth academy soccer

Oct 6, 2012, 8:54 AM EDT

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“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.

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