Robert Enke: a personal and secret struggle

IF there’s one great misnomer about the modern day footballer, it’s the idea that their life is a spoilt and easy one. In terms of affluence that may well be true. In both an Internet and television age, the sport has quickly become both the language and commerce of its time: providing both instant exposure and financial wealth that plays out like something from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Such a reward may seem to outweigh its social negatives for those from the outside looking in. However, it should be noted that for those at the top level, having such notoriety has a multi faceted, dark side too. Not only are you constantly in the spotlight, but being a footballer comes with an extraordinary amount of pressure. It’s almost like a Chinese water torture machine, the pressure niggles at the back of a footballer’s mind from the moment he wakes up till he puts his head on the pillow at night. Knowing that your next game might finally be the one where your limitations are finally exposed can keep one up all night. In a performance based career where a handful of costly errors means the difference between glory and derision: the executioner and not the patron is ultimately king.

For a German goalkeeper called Robert Enke, such pressure on the face of it seemed to be handled with a blistering confidence. A slightly introverted character but successful nonetheless, his CV had taken him by 2009 on a tour of Europe’s elite clubs and on the verge of a starting place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Enke was on a linear path to success. Starting his goalkeeping apprenticeship at national youth level, his ascension started in the professional ranks of German clubs such as FC Carl Zeiss Jena and Borussia Monchengladbach, quickly alerting foreign scouts and agents looking to recruit fresh talent from the Bundesliga.

Enke made his first big move in 1999, although in what would end up being a recurring theme for Enke, it would prove to have a sting in its tail. Benfica really should have been a dream departure for the keeper but it just so happened to coincide with one of the most turbulent times in the club’s recent history. Financial problems, a constant rotation of managers and a lack of silverware saw that the transition wasn’t a smooth one. In private, Enke had been worried about the length of his three-year contract but at least on the pitch his performances seemed to block out all the outside interference. Enke would go on to drown out the background problems and be a resounding success over three seasons in Lisbon. His form even put him on the radar of a host of top level European clubs, with Manchester United and Arsenal both having been keen to sign the keeper. Although both would eventually lose out to Barcelona in the race for his services. A club who on the face of it, seemed perfectly poised to progress his career even further.

There were bad omens from the start however. Somewhat naively, Enke had miscalculated his value to Barcelona and traditionally how much the goalkeeper role was the least important person in the team for both the management and fans alike. There were other nuances too. Admired for their cavalier style, their archetypal high defensive line was no secret but symbolically in training it still came as something of a shock to Enke, heightening his sense of loneliness both on and off the pitch. He also had the egos of both his teammates and management to contend with. Under the hypnotic, narcissistic gaze of Louis Van Gaal, he suddenly found himself under the helm of a man whose regime was noted for its lack of empathy. ‘I don’t even know who you are,’ he said to Enke after the goalkeeper rang him up over his concerns over signing for the club. If that hardly filled the goalkeeper with confidence, then what was to follow would linger long in the goalkeeper’s memory.

Handed a rare start in a cup game against Novelda that they were expected to win easily, Enke found himself at the end of a humiliation both on and off the pitch. A poor game by the keeper in which Barcelona were at the receiving end of a rare defeat was shockingly highlighted by the comments of his team mate Frank De Boer afterwards in which he publicly blamed the keeper for their shock exit. Although years later De Boer would claim he was misquoted by the press, former Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes was of a different opinion, saying Enke was ‘fed to the Lions’ by his teammates. It was a betrayal that was said to have haunted Enke for a long time afterwards.

Something else was beginning to haunt Enke too; although very few were aware of it. Having suffered sporadic anxiety attacks since his Benfica days, he now privately began to suffer more and more from the condition. His lack of opportunities at Barcelona only added to his alienation. He would go on to start just one game in La Liga and his time in Spain was a pretty miserable one. If there was one positive thing to come out of his time as an outcast in Spain however, it was a friendship he would form with a German football writer called Ronald Reng who was perfectly aware of both the machinations of the game and what it was like for a fellow countryman to try and make his name in a different country. He had already written a successful book about a German goalkeeper called Lars Leese, who’s calamitous spell as a premiership goalkeeper for Barnsley had been both widely appreciated by both critics and Enke alike. The two friends would meet regularly and discuss writing another book about Enke’s experiences abroad, although Reng felt more like it was a chance for his friend to speak in confidence about his anxieties as a top class footballer rather than any literary ambitions. Fate also happened to intervene with a sudden loan move to Fenerbache, which Enke must have thought was a godsend after his awful experience at the hands of the Spanish Giants.

If Enke thought his move to Turkey was an end to his problems on the pitch however, he was in for a rude awakening. The cauldron of playing for Fenerbache was in many ways worse than Barcelona. The tribalism of the fans meant that mistakes and bad results were often met with the sort of derision and attempted violence reserved for disgraced politicians. Unfortunately for Enke, the bad experience of his Barcelona debut was to be cruelly echoed in a game against Istanbulsapor. Fenerbache lost the game 3-0 with the goalkeeper heavily criticised by the Turkish press for his performance. The fans on the terraces showed him even less respect, screaming abuse and throwing firecrackers at him. It would be the only game he would ever played for the turbulent club.

This was the cue for Enke to question not only his love for the game but also his ability to handle the pressure of playing at the top level. He began to suffer from depression and would confide in his wife Teresa that he was ready to completely walk away from the game altogether. Teresa Reim, who had been a successful athlete in her own right, understood the pressures of top level sport and somehow convinced her husband to ride out the storm. Although he didn’t know it yet, he was heading for something of a renaissance and happier waters.

A loan move to Spanish side Tenerife would follow next and with the spotlight finally lifted from not having to perform for one of Europe’s elite clubs, Enke finally began to shine. It would be a positive experience for the goalkeeper and he was praised by both fans and the Spanish press for a series of superb displays. It seemed to validate his presence in La Liga after such a torrid time, although privately he was already considering a less pressurised career in the local leagues and certainly a move back to the Bundesliga.

In 2004, Enke made a move to Hannover 96 and slowly began the process of rebuilding a career that on paper had looked like it was seriously damaged. Hannover were a solid, unspectacular Bundesliga side, noted more for their sense of community and team spirit rather than a club full of superstars. Such an ethos suited Enke and he thrived, consistently turning in good displays that seemed to dispel the anxiety he had once shown on the pitch. Enke even had time to concentrate on more personal matters, and in 2006, Teresa gave birth to their daughter named Lara. Tragically for the Enke’s however, she was born with a serious heart condition. Despite surgery, the infant would tragically pass away. It was a savage blow for the couple.

Although football must have seemed insignificant compared to his personal tragedy, Enke somehow carried on with his football career. Hannover seemed to be the club he was most settled at, and if the pressure of being a top class footballer still remained, he seemed to cope with it. His consistent form continued over the next few seasons and he was even made captain. He was widely seen as the best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga and by now had come to the attention of the National team. By 2009, Enke was seen as the potential number one at the international level for Germany, but that came with huge pressure in itself and also a sense of cruel irony in his private situation. In terms of international teams, the German side were an outfit who thrived on and manipulated pressure, a heavy price to pay for a goalkeeper who had wilted under the spotlight of playing at the very top levels and privately was terrified both at the idea of it, and the fact that there were very few avenues in the sport in which discuss the matter.

Football had been one of the last sports to embrace the use of psychologists; as such philosophy was still in its infancy in 2009. In truth, there had been very little coverage of mental health issues within the sport to justify it. There was also the issue of reputation too. The masculine coda of the dressing room still lingered throughout football. An admission of mental issues was a testament of weakness in many players’ eyes. The coda of being the first to break the stigma seemed for most footballers, a huge step to take.

The German federation were keen to explore its avenues however. In the build up to the 2010 World Cup, they employed a team of psychologists to monitor and interview each member of the German national squad, Enke included. Surprisingly for the goalkeeper, their findings were inconclusive and found nothing to be concerned about. Little did they know however, that their good intentions might well have exaggerated Enke’s long-standing problem.

Privately, Enke began to fear the repercussions of his depression being revealed. Having adopted another daughter with Teresa all kinds of irrational thoughts began to go through his head. He worried that his career would be finished and he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family or even worse, that his daughter would be taken away from him. Despite reassurances from his wife – a black mood now seemed to envelope him. Like most people in the grip of depression, increasingly he began to see no way out of his situation.

What would occur next however, was beyond anyone’s worst nightmare. On the morning of the 10th of November 2009, Enke informed his wife that he was heading for a training session at Hannover. There was no training that day however and instead he drove to a level crossing at Neustadt-Eilvese. Once there he walked calmly on to the tracks, straight into the path of a passenger train and was killed instantly. He also left a note behind which left no doubt of his intentions.

German football immediately went into mourning once the news of Enke’s death broke. ‘How can it be possible that a young, successful athlete can get into a situation where he can see no way out?’’ stated German FA president Theo Zwanziger. He was not alone in his shock either. Both team mates and friends asked the question that most people in the shadow of suicide always ask: was their something they could have done? And if there was, should they have tried a great deal harder?

Perhaps the most telling comment would come from Robert Enke’s old writing buddy Ronald Reng. In the aftermath of his friends death he would go on to write a beautiful biography about the goalkeeper, bringing to light the pressures and mental struggles his friend was under. He would also say, ‘In our achievement oriented society, the last bastion in defence can’t be depressive. So Robert summoned up a huge amount of strength to keep his depression secret. He locked himself away in his illness. Until tragically it devoured him.’

By Craig Campbell with artwork by Christian Hindes

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