Mind games

Paul Joyce reflects on the tragic death of German goalkeeper Robert Enke and examines football's poor record when it comes to helping players with mental illness

Unlike many of today's players, people felt like they genuinely knew Robert Enke. An ambassador for children's heart charities and anti-fur campaigns, the German national goalkeeper embodied a new generation who rejected the combative machismo of Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann in favour of an unspectacular integrity. Yet it turned out that no one knew Robert Enke at all, not even his Hannover 96 team-mates. "You learn over time how to trick the media," he once said, tellingly. "You talk a lot, but say nothing."

On November 10, Enke drove to a level crossing near his home in Neustadt and stepped in front of a regional express train travelling from Bremen to Hannover. The 32-year-old was killed instantly. In a moving press conference held the following day, Enke's widow Teresa revealed that her husband first sought therapy for depression in 2003.

His psychologist, Dr Valentin Markser, described him as suffering from "fear of failure" after unsuccessful spells at Barcelona and Fenerbahce, whose supporters pelted Enke with bottles in his first match, causing the keeper to quit the next day. Enke's father, a trained sports psychologist, traced his son's crises back to his youth team days, when he was placed in teams above his age group. "He was frightened of not being able to keep up with the older boys," Dirk Enke explained. "He was trapped in the demands that he placed on himself."

In 2006, two years after Enke joined Hannover, his two-year-old daughter Lara died of a rare heart condition. The couple adopted a baby girl, Leila, in May 2009, but Robert feared she would be taken away if his depression became public – even though the authorities confirmed that this would not happen. Enke re-established contact with Dr Markser in October, but refused to be treated as an inpatient. "If I'm treated in the psychiatric clinic, my football career is over," he told his father. "It's the only thing I can do, or want to do." Having convinced doctors that he wasn't a suicide risk, he cancelled all further treatment on the day of his death.

Although Enke had only eight international caps, 35,000 people attended a commemoration ceremony for him in Hannover's AWD Arena. The outpouring of emotion was in part a belated recognition that acute depression, which affects four million Germans, is, as Stan Collymore put it: "A bloody serious illness – the only one that makes human beings want to take their own life." "We thought we'd manage everything, we thought love would see us through," said Teresa Enke. "But you don't always manage it."

After Enke's death Theo Zwanziger, the president of the German football association, called on the sport to finally end its "warlike mentality" and compared the stigmatisation of depression with that of gay footballers: "If they open up, players are afraid of losing what is enormously important to them: football."

Yet German football has already missed numerous opportunities to confront the taboos surrounding depression. Former 1860 Munich striker Guido Erhard died in 2002 by throwing himself under a train. In 2003, Bayern Munich board member Edmund Stoiber reacted to the announcement that Sebastian Deisler was suffering from depression by calling the midfielder "the biggest waste of money in the club's history".

Some Bayern players even nicknamed him die Deislerin (Mrs Deisler). Deisler retired from football four years later, aged 27. Michael Sternkopf, who was prescribed psychiatric drugs after signing for Bayern Munich in 1990, believes little has changed since. "If I said to a coach today 'I'm afraid', then he wouldn't pick me, I'd be finished."

If anything, the situation has deteriorated. According to a survey by the German Sport University in Cologne, the usage of antidepressants in professional sport has trebled since 2006. This year alone, eight active or former sportsmen have committed suicide, including Olympic boxer Darren Sutherland. Ten days after Enke's death, St Pauli defender Andreas Biermann revealed he had tried to kill himself in October, after injuries and gambling addiction.

The Austrian sports psychologist Günter Amersberger does not believe, however, that sportsmen are more prone to depression than other professions – in fact physical activity is a proven antidepressant. But top athletes find it particularly difficult to seek help: "They feel a strong urge to function, just like politicians."

Others question the availability of sufficiently qualified help. Only Bayern Munich employ a full-time psychologist, although clubs such as Bochum work with specialists. Professor Florian Holsboer, who treated Deisler at the Max-Planck-Institut, is concerned that football clubs are over-reliant on sports psychologists whose expertise lies in maximising performance, but who lack the clinical training to spot the early signs of depression a sportsman can conceal more easily than a torn muscle. "These young men are thrust into the public eye with minimal life experience and an endless supply of money," says Holsboer. "It takes a robust nature to survive, which means that sensitive, artistic players are losing access to professional football."

The often savage criticism of Bundesliga players by the German press is an obvious, yet no less valid, factor. In October, 19-year-old Hertha Berlin goalkeeper Sascha Burchert was branded a "goalkeeping buffoon" by the tabloid Bild for making two errors. When VfL Wolfsburg coach Armin Veh allowed his striker Grafite to return to Brazil to clear his head, he was asked whether all Wolfsburg's players were such "crybabies and sensitive souls".

The media's coverage of Enke's death itself became a voyeuristic feeding frenzy in which the reporting guidelines issued by the Society for the Prevention of Suicides were roundly ignored. On the evening of his death, one talkshow even speculated whether he had chosen the level crossing to be nearer to his dead daughter's grave.

More is to come. Enke's advisor, Jörg Neblung, is planning a biography of his client and film producer Nico Hofmann imagines all his colleagues are considering an Enke movie. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that, having worked so hard to hide his depression, Enke's private life has become the most public of property.

From WSC 275 January 2010