Robert Enke’s life story should make us pause before we castigate

There was, very recently, a case in the Bundesliga of a player who wanted to kill himself. When it came to light, the club arranged for the player to be privately admitted to a clinic, they kept in regular contact with his doctors, and continued the full payment of his salary for the duration of his treatment.
Nobody can say for sure whether this would have happened were it not for the heartbreaking example of Robert Enke, the Germany goalkeeper who suffered from depression and took his own life two years ago. But it is clear that football in Germany is more enlightened about the psychological pressures on its elite sportsmen than most. There is now a network of sports psychiatrists available to the Bundesliga – a job description that did not used to exist – which works outside of clubs to help those afraid of being open about their problems. And there is less severity from the public when someone in football appears to be experiencing a hard time, as if there is a tacit acknowledgement that life at the sharp end is not necessarily the dream job that it is supposed to be, millionaire wages or not.
The writer Ronald Reng, who was a friend of Enke’s and took on the task of accounting his story in the exceptional book A Life Too Short – The Tragedy Of Robert Enke, has been taken aback by the reaction to this deeply personal memoir. The book became a bestseller in Germany straight away, and he cannot even begin to count how many people with depression wrote to him, and how many players and agents called him up to talk about issues so easily kept hidden that he had brought to the surface.
“The last wish Robert had was to write this book,” says Reng. “At least there is an understanding of what someone suffering depression goes through. Through Robert’s death there is in Germany a higher understanding that this is an illness and that people need help.”
It is an extraordinary and vivid account, which evokes Enke’s feelings of escalating anxiety in what might be perceived as everyday occurrences for a footballer. The stress of trying to avoid mistakes, the fear of public ridicule, the worry about the coach’s decisions, the dread of moving to a new club and into the unknown. Reng recounts conversations between Enke and his friends and family, his team-mates and goalkeeping rivals, and what comes across so painfully is the way episodes of depression changed Enke from a warm, kind and thoughtful man into someone so troubled that he could barely face getting out of bed.
Contemplating Enke’s worries as he begins training at Barcelona under Louis van Gaal, or his desperation as he sits in a room in Istanbul and realises he cannot go through with a move to Fenerbahce that all parties have agreed on, or his doubts about the competition to be Germany’s No1 for the 2010 World Cup, makes you stop for a moment and reassess the criticism of footballers we dole out so freely, as media and as fans.
There is clearly an important distinction to be made between Enke, whose illness cost him his life, and those in football who are experiencing setbacks. But it is not so terrible to give some thought to the pressure-cooker environment high level sportsmen exist within. Footballer X misses the latest in a series of sitters? Manager Y has lost the game, the dressing room, and quite possibly the plot? Referee Z flunks the critical decision in the game? In English football the default reaction is to mock, to berate, to intimidate. After reading Reng’s book I have looked in the mirror and felt ashamed about some opinions I have dived into. It is so easy to rush to judgment, to make a cartoon villain of someone or vent spleen from a position of the supposed moral high ground.
Reng, who worked in England for several years, is interested to note the cultural differences in terms of relations between the players and the public. “The image of the footballer in England is just terrible at the moment,” he says. “They are just seen like prats, like young people misbehaving. It is not as cliched in Germany. It is not the case that you automatically expect a footballer to have lost contact with reality. In fact it is quite the opposite. The number of footballers in the Bundesliga who have done [the German equivalent of] A-levels is higher than the national average. They are much better educated, and in general have a much more positive image and are treated respectfully.”
Reng’s book has been translated into English and Dutch, and we can only hope that the message that has filtered through German football has a wider spread.

Taken from ‘’

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