The former Germany international tragically took his own life after a lengthy battle with depression but his death remains a lesson for the media, the fans and the game itself
By Aditya Bajaj
On November 8, 2009, Robert Enke led Hannover against Hamburg in the famous northern derby. On the way to the field, he spotted his friend and Germany colleague, Piotr Trochowski. The attacking midfielder was an adversary that day but Enke gave him a hug before heading for kick-off. The match ended 2-2 but only because Enke had produced one of the finest performances of his career.
He embarked upon a lap around the stadium to acknowledge the crowd, as if keen to share his joy at returning to football after a two-month hiatus, before heading home and enjoying dinner with his neighbours and family.
Two days later, he took his own life. He was only 32.
The tragedy sent shockwaves across Germany, raising questions as to why a goalkeeper who was set to be Germany's No.1 at World Cup 2010 took such a drastic decision. It was only after his wife, Teresa Enke, held a press conference that people learned that her husband had been battling depression for six years. His memorial service was attended by nearly 40,000 people – the biggest in German sports history.
Ronald Reng's book on his friend, A Life Too Short, further opened up Enke's life before the world and the beautifully written biography made people question the way in which we look at footballers. It begged the question as to what - if anything - was being done by federations and clubs to deal with depression, which, before Enke's death, was a major taboo within the game, often considered a sign of weakness.
Robert was, professionally, at the peak of his powers when he died and had enjoyed a proud career. Since shining for Benfica back at the turn of the millennium he had been courted by the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid before signing for Barcelona in the summer of 2002. He seemed set for superstardom. Instead, Louis van Gaal failed to see what others like Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho at Porto had seen in Enke, and the Dutchman relegated him to the bench in favour of Victor Valdes, who had just been promoted from the youth team.
|"I always repressed things and thought the club needs me to perform. It could not continue like this. All the fun and joy has gone out of my game. I don't want this torture anymore"
- Depression also forced Sebastian Deisler to retire at 27
That, and a disastrous one-month spell on loan at Fenerbahce the following summer, triggered his first bout of depression because, for the first time in his career, he had doubts about his own ability, so much so that he almost quit the game. However, a six-month stint at second-division Tenerife helped him fall in love with football again and, following a summer move to Hannover, there was no looking back as Enke's career took off once again.
Indeed, after Jens Lehmann's retirement following Euro 2008, he was regarded as Joachim Low's first-choice shot-stopper. Manuel Neuer, who eventually took that spot, is today one of the world's best but things could have turned out to be different had Enke not decided to take his life months before the journey to South Africa.
So why would a player who had everything going in his favour, professionally, all of a sudden decide to take his own life?
In 2006, Enke lost his two-year-old daughter Lara, who had been battling a heart defect since birth. Robert and his wife, Teresa, adopted a girl called Leila in the summer of 2009 but, as explained by his wife and later by Reng in his book, it was the fear of losing his daughter once again that triggered his depression that eventually cost him his life.
When he first suffered depression after his failed stint at Barcelona, only his agent and wife were privy to his condition. In 2009, months before his suicide, the keeper was enjoying a beautiful summer with his wife in Portugal, making post-retirement plans to settle in Lisbon with his family. But, once the season started, Enke started having doubts once again and the constant fear of losing his spot both for his club and country consumed him.
The media was told that he was injured, with only a handful of close friends and family aware that Robert had been hit by his illness once again. The public notion that a footballer is paid highly and therefore enjoys a glamorous, carefree life forced him to keep it a secret. Indeed, he even refused any professional help for fear of his illness becoming public knowledge, which, in turn, would threaten his image and his place in the national team.
|"The young professional suddenly earns a lot of money, maybe even drops out of school, is hyped and everyone kisses his feet. But once they fail to perform, it all ends -- in one fell swoop at that. Suddenly he is only a number"
- Teresa Enke
Eventually, when he did a make a comeback a few days before his death, his family thought that he had turned a corner but little did they know that Enke had something else in his head. All of a sudden, he was a happy man who behaved normally, not because he had overcome his problem but because he had found a solution to the illness that was killing him inside. For him, death was the only escape.
It was only after his death that the German football federation (DFB) and people around football started to take depression in sport seriously. Teresa now runs the Robert Enke foundation, which helps people come out into the open and deal with mental exhaustion and depression, in conjunction with the DFB, and recently, during Germany's October World Cup qualifier against Ireland (the first match which she had attended since her husband's death), she made an important point. According to her, it is the duty of the clubs to inculcate into youth players the understanding that there is life beyond football and to teach them how to handle the constant pressure from all corners so that they do not suffer the same fate as her husband.
For him, football was everything and the fear of losing that over the public disclosure of his illness took his life. In his book, Reng reveals how Enke wanted to write his story himself and tell the world what a footballer goes through in his head every day. He did not live to see that day but has nevertheless left us an important legacy as a footballer who brought to light an important issue that was never taken seriously.
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