The Tragedy of Robert Enke
by Ronald Reng
Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 297 November 2011
Considering young men are a group at high risk of suicide, the number of active footballers who have taken their own lives is surprisingly small. Dave Clement, Alan Davies and Justin Fashanu are perhaps the best known in Britain, all in their declining football years. That makes Robert Enke a rarity among rarities: the Hannover 96 goalkeeper was at his peak, in a season that should have led to the World Cup, when he walked in front of a train in November 2009.
Enke emerged in a relegation-bound Mönchengladbach team, but found a more congenial home with Benfica, which led to a move to Barcelona in 2002. But a humiliating cup defeat on his debut marked the onset of his first serious depression. He played only a few more times more for Barça, then fled a nightmare loan at Fenerbahce – the photograph of a clearly troubled Enke giving the thumbs-up on arrival in Istanbul is haunting. His unlikely road back led via Tenerife to Hannover, where his performances led him to the brink of a regular spot in the national team.
Ronald Reng's extraordinarily intimate biography draws a painful portrait of Enke's struggle with depression and the toll it took on those around him. With access to Enke's diaries, long interviews with friends, family and team-mates, as well as his own friendship with Enke, Reng gets as close to reconstructing the life of a depressive as it is possible to imagine.
As a football journalist, Reng is exceptionally perceptive. Details of how Enke's game develops are skilfully woven into the thread of his fluctuating mental state, particularly as he fails to convince Barcelona he can become the extra sweeper their style demands. But Reng's real achievement is to step outside his familiar world and explore mental illness in such a sympathetic yet unsentimental fashion. It's a book that could have failed in many ways – lapsing into cod psychology about goalkeepers, indulging in soft-focus schmaltz, inserting the author too prominently or blaming the unforgiving football world for destroying a tortured soul.
A Life Too Short does none of these. There are no villains, and if anyone emerges as a hero it is not Enke but his endlessly patient wife, Teresa. He is popular and respected, but struggles socially – he "never learned how to party". She coaxes him through the dark days while also enduring the illness and death of the couple's two-year-old daughter, who was born with a heart defect.
Paradoxically, for all the tragedy of Enke's life, the Bundesliga comes across as a much saner, more grounded world than the frenzy of the Premier League. The Enkes live quietly, including for a time with an eccentric artist. Hannover travel to away games by train and minor celebrities, tabloid stings and incidents in nightclubs do not figure. Even so, Enke could see no way to reveal his depression and continue as a footballer, a fear that helped drive him towards death. Enke planned to write his story with Reng when he retired. It's a melancholy tribute to the journalist that the task he instead had to accomplish alone is achieved so brilliantly.