Remembering Robert Enke and his legacy to the beautiful game

Four years ago, Robert Enke decided to end his life owing to depression but his death was a lesson to the media, the fans and the sport itself writes Aditya Bajaj.
 Aditya Bajaj
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On the 8thof November 2009, Robert Enke led Hannover against Hamburg in the famous northern derby. On the way to the field inside the tunnel he spotted his friend and national team colleague Piotr Trochowski representing the opposition and hugged him before heading for kick-off. The match ended with both teams tied at two goals, and that evening Enke produced one of the finest performances of his career.

He took a lap around the stadium waving to the crowd as if to celebrate his return to football after a two month hiatus before heading home and enjoying a nice dinner with his neighbours and family. 

Two days later, on the 10th of November he threw himself in front of a train close to his daughter’s grave to end his life. He was only 32.

The unfortunate incident sent shockwaves around Germany raising questions as to why a goalkeeper who was set to be the first choice between the posts at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa for the Die Mannchsaft took such a drastic step. It was only after his wife, Teresa Enke  held a press conference that people got to know 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 both wonder and question the way we look at footballers. It begged the question to the various sports federations as to what were the steps they were taking to deal with an issue as serious as depression – which before Enke’s death was a taboo, often considered a sign of weakness.  

Robert was at the peak of his powers professionally when he died and had enjoyed a proud career. Since shining for Benfica back at the turn of the millennium he was courted by the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid before signing for Barcelona in the summer of 2002 where he was supposed to take that big step to super-stardom. Instead, Louis Van Gaal failed to see what others like Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho at Porto had, and relegated him to the bench in favour of Victor Valdes who had just been promoted from the youth team.

That, and the disastrous one month spell on loan at Fenerbahce the next summer triggered his first spell 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 unable to cope up with the sudden fall in less than a year. However, a six month spell at second division Tenerife made him fall in love with the game again and following a summer move to Hannover in the Bundesliga there was no looking back for this man, as his career took off once again making him one of the best keepers in Germany.

So much so, that post Jens Lehmann’s retirement after the 2008 European Championships where Germany finished second to Spain, he was undoubtedly Joachim Low’s first choice for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He was in the running for the top job ahead of Rene Adler and Tim Wiese. Manuel Neuer who eventually took that spot is today one of the world’s best custodians but things could have turned out to be different had Enke not decided to take his life months before the World Cup.

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, he lost his daughter Lara who was born with a heart defect and was battling the same for two years since birth. Robert and his wife Teresa adopted a girl called Leila however, in the summer of 2009 and 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 post a failed stint at Barcelona, only his agent and wife were privy to his condition. In the summer of 2009, months before his suicide Enke was enjoying a beautiful summer with his wife in Lisbon making plans to settle in Lisbon with his family post retirement. But once the season started and when called upon for the World Cup qualifiers in September, 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, but only a handful of his close friends and family knew that Robert was hit by his illness once again and he was finding it unable to cope with. The public notion that a footballer is paid highly and hence enjoys a glamourous life oblivious to the common troubles of life, forced him to keep it a secret so much so that he refused any professional help in fear of his illness getting public which in turn could threaten his image and his place in the national team.

Eventually when he did a make a comeback a few days before his death, his family thought he had once again fallen in love with the game 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 and that’s one reason why he took matters into his own hands.

 "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

It’s only after his death, that the German federation and people around football started to take depression in sports seriously. When Sebastian Deisler – one of the best midfielders Germany ever produced in the modern era who failed to live up to his potential – retired at the age of 27 back in 2006, mental exhaustion and depression hardly rung loudly to be taken seriously. It’s sad that only after another one suffered so badly and took his life, unable to even make it public for the fear of media crucifixion that it was bought to the fore of public attention.

We find it so easy to put a youngster on the pedestal before he even taps his full potential and find it easier to bring him down when he doesn’t but what we don’t understand is the amount of pressure these footballers have to go through everyday throughout their careers to live up to their public image.

Recently Lionel Messi failed to score in four games, and when he stood forward to take the penalty against Milan, Hernan Crespo tweeted that he had never seen him take a spot-kick like that – taking no chances, kicking it straight in the middle. The media was quick to propose that he was out of form before the game and the pressure on the world’s best player clearly showed.

Imagine what he or many like him must go through every single day trying to justify their talent week in, week out knowing that it wouldn’t take long for the public to bring them down. The example of Fernando Torres and his continuous criticism over the past two years ever since his switch to Stamford Bridge come to mind. Once among the runners up for the Ballon d’Or back in 2008, the Spaniard today is the butt of all jokes.

In his book, Regan highlights how Enke was apprehensive to take to the field when he first arrived in Lisbon as a Benfica player having doubts as to how at the age of 20, he would settle in a foreign country. That begs one to think, how easily we have shunned players who have failed to shine on foreign shores giving them minimal time to justify the hype they created at their former clubs.

Take the case of Gervinho for instance – a star at Lille but an instant failure at Arsenal. Today, when he is back to doing justice to his talent with Roma you do hear an odd remark about how Serie A is below par because a player who failed in the Premier League is suddenly thriving at another. What is not noticed is that maybe the fact that he is re-united with former manager Rudi Garcia may have a big hand in him once again finding his feet.

In 2011, another Hannover goalkeeper Markus Miller publicly announced he was mentally exhausted and was granted a three month sabbatical. He says it was the best decision he has ever taken but you wonder if at all he would have been so open about his illness, had Enke’s suicide not led the public to be more open towards depression which until his death was a big taboo. Enke’s story told the world that depression is an illness just like cancer or any other fatal disease and not a temporary state of set back, and the public needs to be more welcoming towards sportspersons who are scared to disclose their condition for the fear of being castigated in public as being weak.

His wife, Teresa along with the German federation runs the Robert Enke foundation that helps such people come out in the open and deal with mental exhaustion and depression and recently while attending her first football match since her husband’s death during Germany’s qualifier against Ireland last month, she made an important point. According to her, it’s the duty of the clubs to inculcate into the youth players the understanding that there is life beyond football and to teach them how to handle the constant pressure from all corners so they don’t suffer the same fate as her husband.

 "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

For him football was everything, and the fear of losing that over the public disclosure of his illness took his life. Robert Reng in his book reveals how Enke wanted to write his story himself and tell the world what a footballer goes through in his head everyday. He didn’t live to see that day, but has nevertheless left us an important legacy.

It’s a legacy, which should make each one of us think twice before criticizing a Gareth Bale for not performing in the Clasico despite being the most expensive player or a Mario Balotelli for constantly creating problems in public. It should make us think hard, if at all the media’s and our very own short sightedness in judging players is equally responsible for them breaking down.

If Robert Enke was still alive, there is every chance he might have played the World Cup three years ago and maybe even represented his country at last year’s European Championships before settling down in Lisbon with his wife and daughter just as he had planned a few months before his death. 

Today, however, he lives in public memory as a footballer who brought to light an important issue that was never taken seriously.

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