Four years later: Remembering Robert Enke

The former Germany international took his own life after a lengthy battle with depression, but his death remains a lesson for everyone involved in the game.
On Nov. 8, 2009, Robert Enke led Hannover against Hamburg in Germany's famous northern derby. On the way to the field, he spotted his friend and national team colleague Piotr Trochowski. The attacking midfielder was an adversary that day, but Enke gave him a hug before leaving the tunnel and heading out onto the field for kickoff. 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 soccer after a two-month hiatus, before heading home and enjoying dinner with his neighbors and family. 

Two days later, on Nov. 10, 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 the 2010 World Cup in South Africa took such a drastic decision. It was only after his wife, Teresa, 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 Robert, A Life Too Short, further opened up Enke’s life before the world and the beautifully written biography made people question the way we look at soccer players. It begged the question as to what - if anything - was being done by federations and clubs to tackle 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 fine 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 Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho at Porto had seen in Enke, and the Dutchman relegated him to the bench in favor 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 forced Sebastian Deisler to retire at 27

That, and the disastrous one-month spell on loan at Fenerbahce the following summer, triggered Enke's 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 the game again and, following a summer move to Hannover, there seemed to be no looking back for Enke, as his career took off once more.

Indeed, after Jens Lehmann’s retirement following the 2008 European Championship, 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 custodians. But things could have turned out to be different had Enke not decided to take his life months before the World Cup in South Africa.

So why would a player who had everything going in his favor, professionally, make such a decision?

In 2006, he lost his 2-year-old daughter Lara, who had been battling a heart defect since birth. Robert and Teresa adopted a girl named 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 another daughter that triggered the depression that eventually cost Enke his life.

When he first started suffering from depression, after his failed stint at Barcelona, only his agent and wife were privy to his condition. In 2009, months before his suicide, Enke 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 were 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 soccer player is paid highly and therefore enjoys a glamorous, care-free 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 he had turned a corner. But little did it 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 soccer started to take depression in sports seriously. Teresa now runs the Robert Enke Foundation - which helps people come out in the open and deal with mental exhaustion and depression - in conjunction with the DFB. Recently, during Germany’s qualifier against Ireland last month (the first match she had attended since her husband's death), she made an important point. According to her, it’s the duty of the clubs to ingrain in the youth players the understanding that there is life beyond soccer and to teach them how to handle the constant pressure from all corners so they don’t suffer the same fate as her husband.

For Enke, soccer 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 an athlete goes through in his head every day. He didn’t live to see that day, but has nevertheless left us an important legacy as a soccer player who brought to light an important issue that was never taken seriously.

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