Goalkeeper warrior: Robert Enke and the depression not allowed to exist in football
Ronald Reng’s book 10 years ago about late German shone a light on the illness
On November 10th, 2009 former Barcelona goalkepper Robert Enke, who had played 90 minutes for Hannover 96 just days earlier, ended his life by stepping in front of a train. Photograph: by Dave Rogers/Getty Images
It is a decade now since A Life Too Short, the powerful story of Robert Enke’s life and death, was published and its author Ronald Reng believes that the goalkeeper’s legacy is still being felt, at least in Germany. There, a foundation established in his name reaches out to academy players and others to discuss the issue of depression and clubs are more ready and able to help those affected by the issue.
Enke, a German international at the time he died, had been talking with Reng on and off about doing the book for almost eight years but the journalist admits that he often had his doubts about the project.
“In 2004, in Tenerife,” Reng recalls now, “he said to me: ‘You know, Ronnie I’m already taking notes for our book’. And I thought to myself, ‘how am I going to explain to him that we can’t write a book about a goalkeeper who once was a great hope but ended up in the second division in Spain?’ That was because I didn’t know about his real story.”
Like almost everyone else, Reng only really found out about that on November 10th, 2009 when Enke, who had played four times for his country that year and 90 minutes for Hannover 96 just days earlier, ended his life.
The news came as a huge shock to Reng, then a sports journalist who had interviewed the player on a good few occasions down the years. He had strung out that work trip to Tenerife so as to spend more time with him and sometimes stayed with Enke and his wife Teresa later, when the couple had returned home to Germany after he signing for Hannover.
He regarded Enke, “as one of my best friends in football. It is not a relationship with a school friend or something like that; I would call it a football friendship. There will (for a reporter) be some people in football, who you know for years and you can always ring them and you get the feeling they tell you everything.
“In the case of Robert that wasn’t the case, of course, but he would tell me, let’s say, the daily life secrets of football.”
Reng had previously written a wonderful book, The Keeper of Dreams, with Lars Leese, an initially amateur goalkeeper who is implausibly catapulted to the Premier League with Barnsley, then, after just a couple of years, slips quickly back to obscurity. Leese is brutally honest about the experience and the book is a remarkable insight into a footballer’s life at a British club in a northern town in the late 1990s.
Ill-fated spell at Barcelona
On one of Reng’s first encounters with Enke, during the early days of the player’s ill-fated spell at Barcelona, the reporter gave a copy of that book to the goalkeeper who loved it. When Reng joked, almost out of embarrassment, that they should do one together too, Enke immediately latched onto the suggestion.
“Obviously he had a reason to be serious about it,” Reng recalls, “because he was thinking immediately: ‘one day, in this book, I can tell my story. I can finally tell people about my depression’. But I didn’t know anything about at that time.”
Reng only discovered the detail of Enke’s long battle with illness after his death, although he accepts that there were clues when they met if only he had understood enough himself to spot them.
“With the knowledge I’ve got now about depression and psychological illness I would have realised lots of things but at the time I knew basically nothing about depression and it’s fair to say I didn’t care,” he admits. “I was quite young and enjoying life and I just blacked that stuff out of my life. I had nobody else in my life who was suffering from mental illnesses so, when I saw Robert sometimes I thought: ‘Oh, this is strange, why is he so depressed in a, you know, common way to use the word. Why is he so sad?’ Enke, though, was generally not playing at the time and so, Reng concluded, ‘Of course you are not happy when you are a substitute’”.
Later, he would learn about the player’s early periods of self-doubt, the crisis in Lisbon when Enke signed for Benfica then immediately had to be talked out of leaving for home and the turmoil that followed his Barcelona debut in 2002 when the team was beaten in a cup match by lowly Novelda and his performance was openly criticised by team-mate Frank de Boer.
Enke felt abandoned by the club’s coach Louis van Gaal but his attempt to escape the isolation he felt by going on loan to Fenerbahce backfired badly when his debut went poorly and he walked out on the club. Football is a ruthlessly tough business and there was, certainly at this time, an added expectation that goalkeepers needed to be resilient and so Enke could only really rely on family and his closest friends for support.
“Things have obviously changed,” says Reng, “but in Germany at the time there existed this public figure of, you know, the ice cold goalkeeper who was the lonely cowboy would save the whole game on his own. Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehman, they really cultivated that kind of figure, of a goalkeeper warrior.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with his illness, his depression . . . I think Robert was just a very sensitive and lovely man who wanted to be a good team-mate but he felt in Germany, at the time, and lots of times, under scrutiny from people who were still looking out for that goalkeeper warrior.
“There were certainly lots of doubts, particularly among the press and public, but maybe even in the game too that he wasn’t strong enough just because he was a nice and polite man.”
Things started to turn around for Enke when he went on loan to second division side Tenerife in 2004. Out of the spotlight and relieved of some of the pressure he had felt, the player’s form improved and he began to attract attention again.
The successful spell on loan earned him a move to Hannover 96 where he ultimately did well enough to become part of the national team set up. In the couple of years that followed he seems to have coped as well as could be imagined when his daughter was born with a severe heart defect and later died, aged just two, after surgery.
Later, though, the fear of losing a daughter he and Teresa subsequently adopted appears to have further inhibited his ability to seek help for his depression.
The account of the period after it returned, pieced together with help from Teresa, his closest friends (the player, Marco Villa and agent, Jörg Neblung) and diaries is a difficult read but Reng handles it with remarkable sensitivity. The book is understated but deeply affecting and having consulted widely with medical experts he captures much that will ring true to those who have had a close encounter with depression themselves.
In the immediate aftermath of Enke’s death, Reng was, like many others, in shock but Teresa and those friends encouraged him to write Robert’s story, something they felt was more important than ever now.
“She said, ‘I want you to write it,’ and it was her who gave me access to all his notes. He had a diary and also correspondence with people in football . . . I had to total access to that. She spoke with me a lot and every single other person I asked after that gave me all the time that I wanted.”
The many interviews with former team mates, rival goalkeepers at the clubs where he played and coaches provide an insight to the different perceptions of Enke; how well he was liked but also, for the most part, how very poorly he was really understood.”
Explain it away
Among those Reng did not approach, however, were Van Gaal and De Boer, a deliberate decision that, he admits, rooted, at least in part, in his anger over the way the pair had treated Enke at Barcelona and a reluctance to allow them explain it away.
Writing the book was, he says now, difficult and he was deeply anxious about how it would be received.
“I was afraid of the response. Afraid of people telling me that my book wasn’t good enough for Robert’s memory. And when it was finished I didn’t know how to behave; there were interview requests but I didn’t know: Am I allowed to give interviews? Would people think I’m trying to make a fortune (he had already resolved to give away most of his payment) out of Robert’s death? I was very insecure.
“So it came then as a very great relief when I realised that many people were actually overwhelmed by the book and there were some or even lots of people suffering from depression who wrote to me and thanked me saying that it meant a lot to them that they can realise that they are not strange people; that it’s just that they’re just suffering from an illness and that even if you’re Germany’s number one goalkeeper you can suffer from the illness the same as them.”
Along with the public acclaim, came quite a few awards including the Sports Book of the Year in Britain. A Life Too Short sold 300,000 copies in Germany where it would contribute to the conversation about depression among elite level athletes.
A little over 10 years on, Reng still sees the book as having “defined” his own career in many ways and he still tries to play a small part in that conversation, occasionally visiting clubs to speak to aspiring professionals on behalf of the Robert Enke Foundation, which is headed up by Teresa.
“When Robert suffered from depression, there was a feeling of ‘what do I do now? Where do I go? This is something which is not allowed to exist in football. But there is a network of help available in Germany now. If a player is ready to ask for treatment and help then he will find it immediately . . . and very good treatment from specialists, sport psychiatrists because you know there’s a network of 70 sports psychiatrists now in Germany.”
Reng is hopeful that depression is now more commonly seen more like an injury, as another issue requiring treatment in order to facilitate recovery and happy to play a part in spreading the message that it should be.
“It feels,” he says, “like the last task Robert left for me.”
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