Tragic Life of The German Suicide Goalie

On Novermber 10th 2009 the German national keeper Robert Enke committed suicide by standing in front of an express train. His death stunned the football world. This heartbreaking biography tells of a life too short.
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Enke painting by Owain Thomas

Modern football has this week reminded its faithful followers why it can be so reprehensible. Carlos Tévez mutinied in Bavaria (Manchester City have subsequently suspended him), Rio Ferdinand suffered the ignominy of more adulterous accusations, Titus Bramble was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault and possession of a Class A drug (Sunderland have subsequently suspended him) and on Friday morning The Sun’s front page splash explained that Tesco security staff collared David de Gea for nicking a doughnut. Graeme Souness, analysing City’s game for Sky on Tuesday, cited Tévez as the ‘epitome of what the man in the street thinks is wrong with modern-day players’. Few would disagree.

And then there is a stark, harrowing reminder of one man who shared their profession. At 6.15pm on 10 November 2009 German goalkeeper Robert Enke threw himself in front of the regional express from Bremen as it sped through Eilves and suddenly a relatively unknown quantity outside of his home country was the subject of worldwide mourning.

Enke had suffered bouts of depression in 2003 and 2009, with the trauma of the death of his two-year-old daughter Lara sandwiched in between in 2006. Ronald Reng, a Barcelona-based journalist for 10 years, first met Enke during his joyful spell at SL Benfica for a routine interview in 2002, and four years later he was a guest at Enke and his wife Teresa’s converted farm in Empede, bouncing Lara on his knee in the sweltering summer heat. Reng, once a goalkeeper himself, was the sole journalist Enke confided in, yet amidst the darkness half-joked that the pair should collaborate on a book in the future.

Following his death, Enke’s widow and friends persuaded Reng to write a book which is so meticulous and multi-layered it is perhaps inappropriate to label it a biography. Technically it is one, but it is also an analysis of depression, an insight into the loneliness of a goalkeeper and simultaneously, it unfolds like the most saddening Shakespearean tragedy.

The Catalan spoke to Reng for a mammoth three hours, with the blaugrana’s number one welling up when remembering his former colleague.

Unsurprisingly Reng endured few difficulties when acquiring impeccable sources to expertly trace Enke’s career, which veered from Germany to Iberia, Istanbul to Tenerife and back home again – conversations are recorded verbatim in A Life too Short. One request to interview Enke’s former team-mate Victor Valdés at Barcelona was initially turned down, albeit not by the player himself. Subsequently Valdés’ camp was then informed that he would be the only person not to agree to an interview as part of the book. An agreement was swiftly reached, and the Catalan spoke to Reng for a mammoth three hours, with the blaugrana’s number one welling up when remembering his former colleague.

That Enke was an international footballer becomes irrelevant in phases as depression is dissected in a bid to quell the ignorance that lingers towards it, with some refusing to regard it as an illness. Enke’s dislike of conflict masked how lonely he felt as the last line of defence to the extent that goals against him, whether he was culpable or not (often he wasn’t), tormented him for days that became weeks and weeks that became months. The symptoms of his anxieties are traced back to when he was a 16-year-old promoted to the under-18s at hometown club Carl Zeiss Jena; his fear of failure halting natural progress. Fatefully his father Dirk, a psychotherapist, endured a reticent relationship with his son which appeared to suffer from him leaving Enke’s mother.

Amiable and courteous, Enke was too good-natured for his position; the antithesis of his cold and unfriendly predecessors Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann. René Adler, now Manuel Neuer’s competitor for a starting berth in Joachim Löw’s national side, reflects on how his ‘rivalry’ with Enke ahead of the 2010 World Cup was merely tabloid mischief. The pair had grown so close that Adler’s mother became a friend of Teresa, and Enke’s fellow custodians are effusive in their praise of his ability and consideration.

The recurring theme of arriving at clubs in a foreign land terrified him.

Although captain at the Estadio da Luz at the age of only 23, Enke’s ambition led him to Spain, yet it was his downfall. The recurring theme of arriving at clubs in a foreign land terrified him. His benign agent Jörg Neblung once suggested they go for a round of golf, yet his friend bore the expression of someone being invited on a ‘voyage to the moon’, let alone moving overseas.

His disastrous spells in Catalonia and at Fenerbahçe are complemented by a cutting critique of Dutch diplomacy as Reng (and Enke) recall Barça’s ill-fated second tenure under the arrogant Louis van Gaal (‘The sporting director wants you. I don’t even know you.’), while his brief spell by the Bosphorous is a heart-breaking account of sincerity.

Although he was granted access to Enke’s diary, Reng deliberately excluded overly revealing passages and rather than presenting a gloomy document of a short life, accentuates Enke and his wife’s affinity with Lisbon and a fairy-tale summer with Lara, amongst other blissful moments. And strikingly, rather than a plethora of high-resolution colour images, occasionally a page will be broken up by a black-and-white snapshot that, happy or sad, is an appropriate technique.

Enlightening and visceral, A Life too Short is difficult to read through in one hit because of the peaks and troughs of Enke’s life. Impassive throughout, Reng detaches his prose from his relationship with Enke effectively to avoid wallowing sycophancy. A debut for Die Mannschaft is then tempered by a scaphoid break, and the lightness of a baby girl surviving life-threatening surgery three times is overwhelmed by her death after what should have been straightforward ear surgery. The denouement to Enke’s life, recounted by those who frantically attempted to locate him before he took his own life, is eerily akin to filmic tragedies. Tissues are required.

An indispensable insight into a man and an illness, Reng’s book is a sobering yet brilliant account and may yet restore faith for the disenchanted man in the street.

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