A Life Too Short

The Tragedy of Robert Enke
by Ronald Reng
Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 297 November 2011

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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.

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Comments (6)
Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2011-12-02 14:13:12

Sounds great, in a horrifically crushing way.

Without reading it or knowing too much about the story, I do know that it can be quite depressing even being a goalkeeper. With such a small number of spots available on teams, having to be a "strong, commanding leader," having to be responsible for team's failures – because if you get scored on – it's really your fault, it can all be hard to deal with.

Comment by djw 2011-12-04 20:28:52

Upon reading the review in WSC I was reminded of the former Scotland left-back Eric Schaedler (sp?) who committed suicide when still playing in his mid-thirties. He'd had a solid career at Hibs and Dundee, and I remember fondly meeting him when Dundee toured here (NZ) in the late 70s. He laughed loudly at my inability to pronounce his surname; I was 14, and a German name with a Scottish lilt was beyond my tongue at that age. He happily signed my autograph book (I still have it) and chatted away with me for a good 10 minutes before the game. A decent man, and although I barely knew him, I do wonder what might have happened to crush a man who in my few minutes with him seemed so jovial and human.

Comment by FCKarl 2011-12-04 21:07:54

Robert Enke was not a bit player for the German national team going into World Cup 2010; he was going to be the #1. No doubts about it. Jogi Low and the DFB men's national team leadership were behind Robert. Olli Kahn and Jens Lehman were history.

I'm sorry. I'm just going to be the sourpuss here and say it like it is: Dealing with the pressures of minding a first division club's nets is a degree of pressure, yes. But, real pressure? How about being in charge of 120 soldiers or leading a small firm of 75 – 200 employees that is doing everything right overall but still teetering on the cusp of failure?

I have little sympathy for a man not strong (and husband and father enough) enough to admit he needed more help.

How many alcoholics have we tried to help in football? How many wife beaters? How many addicted gamblers? When guys reach out, even a little, usually what they find is sympathy and aid. Sure, the daft guy or two who heap on mindless, immature ridicule. But, overall? I see those who quietly support. Some who try to actively support.

I've seen this when a man stands up and says, "My name is John, and I am an alcoholic."

Haven't you?

Yes, the only likable person here in this real life story is Ms. Enke.

Please let me add this: Robert experienced the warmth and love of a nation when his little girl was dying. This story was very well known throughout Germany (even Austria and Switzerland). People reached out, as they could, to the Enkes over this. One of the largest applause moments in Hannover stadium history is when Robert walked out onto the field holding his girl in his arms prior to a match some years back.

Everybody was cheeing and crying for joy (at that point we thought the little girl's recovery was going to last).

So Robert knew love. He felt real love. A lot of it. He knew that, despite all our shallow sporting fixations on wins, loses, points, Euro competition qualifying, and national team caps, that people (not all, but enough) have warm and decent parts of their hearts.

By placing himself on those train tracks, Robert copped out. He did. He took the easy way. It it was too much, request of Jogi Low to be dropped from the DFB squad. Maybe even suspend your club contract with Hannover for a half season. Tell your manager and club leadership why. Do like some academics do and take a sabbatical to clear your head, ground yourself.

It's not like he didn't have a bit of freedom to do these things from some pretty decent money already earned in his career. He could drop out for 6, 9 or even 12 months and not need to work.

Most of us cannot do this. And, Robert, news flash: Life is not supposed to be easy. It is not supposed to always be kind.

M'Gladbach, Barca, Benfica, and the spell in Turkey may not have been top chapters in a sporting man's life, but Robert Enke was smiled upon mightily in a number of ways in Hannover. He'd really found his place, a place most athletes would love to be. Yes, Hannover is ideal because it is not the pressure-cooker called Munich or anything like playing for a club in Hamburg, Cologne, or Berlin.

Here's the truth: Robert's ego wouldn't let him ask for help. His ego wouldn't let him. His ego assumed that he'd lose face if he did ask for help. And that's just whacky. It is not the pressures of the game or life itself. We all have to deal with them.

Nonetheless, I appreciate this article and focus on this kind of sports/footballing book. It is worlds better to be talking about these things (Real Life) than just how many trophies Pep Guardiola will have as a manager not yet 45 years old, El Classico gossip, what Tevez and Man City will do, or how easy England's Euro 2012 draw went.

Even if you and I don't actively contemplate suicide as Robert obviously did, we should spend time on the real values in life — and far less on the many, many, many banalities.

Comment by jameswba 2011-12-05 17:12:39

I can't agree with you Karl, though there's an element of truth in this :

'Here's the truth: Robert's ego wouldn't let him ask for help. His ego wouldn't let him. His ego assumed that he'd lose face if he did ask for help.'

Even then, though, I'd argue it's not one man's ego that's the problem, it's the demands of a macho world where you are expected to cover up your vulnerabilities, with ego or whatever.

One thing I recall from the aftermath of Enke's death, and which seems to have been forgotten in some of the reaction that followed Gary Speed's, was that Enke once said how easy it was to act OK in social or media situations, or in interactactions with team-mates – as easy, literaly, as putting on a mask.

Definitely intend to read this book – thanks for the sensitive review.

Comment by FCKarl 2011-12-06 05:03:41

To james and others: What I wish to convey I speak openly of — it is this: We need to stop singing the praises of men who take their lives. Perhaps in a terrible, terrible wartime situation or a concentration camp, or as a brutalized POW, I'd say nothing. I'd only have sympathy for a man in those situations.

But, for goodness sakes, this is sport. A man on a construction project that has the pressures of budget, time, incredible bosses' demands, public expectations, a leadership role, and the expectations of his coworkers — now THAT can be some pressure.

Gary Speed, Robert Enke, and very nearly the German Bundesliga referee Rafati did what a man cannnot do — take yourself out of life. A married man cannot do this. That's betraying an oath and sacred trust to one's wife, one's in-laws, one's own family. Never ever when there are children involved.

Let's remember: Robert Enke and Gary Speed have access to the best care available in our societies, be it direct medical care or medical/psychological aid. Most people seeking mental health care are treated with great care to discretion. Mental health specialists know to do this.

There will always be hard times in life. Always. And money does not shield anyone from this. But goalkeeping or being a midfielder or even manager is not hard. It isn't.

One cannot dodge life's aggravations and ups and downs. One has to bear down, seek help where necessary, keep ALL THINGS in perspective, seek real life wisdom (e.g. read the Bible) and accept the responsibilities, confront them as they come.

And, please, as my last comment — Where is the faith component here? Where is Robert turning to his Christian family roots? To a pastor? To the Bible? I don't know, but I would hope that Gary Speed would know to turn to God in his times of need. Ditto for all of us. God loves us. More than we know. As the Bible says, "Cast all your cares upon Him (God our Heavenly Father), for He cares greatly for you."

Comment by kevinio76 2011-12-06 16:11:17

An amazing book, far more than just a sports book (would also recommend Marcus Trescothick book on a similar tone) – a superb anlaysis of mental health and depression.

Some of the above comments are a shame for me. It is not about the pressure of football but dealing with an illness. Depression overtakes your mental options. You are not thinking straight and dont always view help as an option.

Enke could never just go public on his illness. He would never been able to retreat properly, he would have been hounded all the time. I cant speak for the German tabloids but british readers will remember the horrible press Frank Bruno got a few years ago and i fear the same would be true today,let alone the horrid abuse that will come from the moronic element at all grounds.

Mental health issues are still seen as a personal weakness, as hard it is to take some people still will not accept it as a illness, a woman was only on radio 5 today claming depression doesnt exist.

Finally as for turning to religion, i know i am biased as a atheist, but this is not going to help the vast majority of people.