Having recently completed A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke written beautifully by Ronald Reng, it’s safe to say football has rarely seen a tale so tragic as Enke’s, a German international goalkeeper whose introverted personality, whilst at times a blessing when avoiding abuse from fans, but ultimately brought about his suicide one fateful night. Far too young, far too talented, and overall far too sad a story to even comprehend.
But was Enke’s plight an insight into a wider problem, not only in football generally but in particular in the world of goalkeepers? No other position on the field carries such pressures, one mistake and your ultimately the person at fault for everything bad that happens to your team. The goalkeeper will be the man in the firing line, not only from shots but also from criticism – media, players, managers, and fans alike.
Enke, though, was a supremely talented boy – fast-tracked into the first-team squad at Borussia Monchengladbach after three appearances for German lower league side Carl Zeiss Jena. In his first season as number one, Enke and Monchengladbach suffered a shock relegation.
Despite his side’s disappointing campaign, Enke had earned plenty of admirers, although his decision to publicly announce he was leaving the club at the end of the season earned him plenty of abuse. However, Enke was true to his word and duly left Germany at the end of the 1998/99 season and signed for Portuguese side Benfica.
It was a move fraught with difficulty from the outset, almost immediately after signing his contract in Lisbon, Enke suffered a bout of anxiety and panic, leading him to depart the country immediately and citing his intention to not fulfil the contract.
Ultimately tied down to the club, the ‘keeper did become a Benfica player, with reasonable personal success. Managed by countryman Jupp Heynckes, Enke promptly became club captain despite his wobble over joining the side. Frequent managerial changes followed alongside financial difficulties meaning wages were often left unpaid, Enke left the club in 2002 after making 77 appearances.
The ‘keeper’s next move was one of extreme prestige, Barcelona came calling. A move to Catalonia came following plenty of interest from a host of European giants, eventually deciding on the Camp Nou and completing a free transfer.
Enke struggled in Barcelona in truth, repeatedly playing second fiddle to both Victor Valdes and Roberto Bonano. Most of Enke’s appearances were restricted to cup competitions, appearing in one solitary La Liga match. Not a good situation for a man with a proven track record of borderline depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
During his two years at Barca, Enke was loaned out twice, his first switch to Fenerbahce proved to be a nightmare. His only outing came in a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Istanbulspor, Enke, on debut was directly blamed for the loss, and his own fans threw firelighters and bottles at the German during the game. These scenes, unsurprisingly, meant Enke immediately quit the club and his planned one-year loan spell.
That pitiful night brought on a serious spell of depression for Enke, leading to the talented stopper almost quitting football altogether.
After spending some time back in Barcelona and outside of football, Enke was ready to return and found himself loaned out to Tenerife in the Spanish Segunda, it was on the Spanish Island he refound his form and to an extent his happiness.
In 2004, Enke completed a move back to the Bundesliga this time with Hannover 96, it was here he truly found himself and his best goalkeeping form. He was voted the best goalkeeper in the league by his fellow professionals in German football magazine Kicker.
His upturn in form had earned him international recognition and links with moves to bigger clubs, however, perhaps scarred by previous moves, Enke stayed put. Eventually playing 180 times for Hannover, tragically the last of which came on the 8th November 2009 in a 2–2 draw with Hamburg.
It was two days later Enke took his own life, a suicide note was left and his widow Teresa soon after revealed her husband had been struggling with depression for six years, despite his change in fortunes, it clearly hadn’t got any better.
Hannover and the Bundesliga alike mourned the loss fittingly for weeks after the horrific event. A truly massive loss to German football and world football all over.
It goes without saying Robert Enke had his issues, with panic attacks and worry setting in from a young age, but had the events and the downtimes in his career contributed to his ailments? Having risen to prominence before falling from grace, had he received all the care and attention he so obviously needed from football?
Often ‘keepers will train away from the main group, albeit in a small group of their own with their fellow stoppers, but it is this an indictment of the separation they face day in day out.
Should and could more be done to protect footballers across the board? The modern-day culture of abusing players, especially on social media, and in particular, ‘keepers, who are the last line of defence, is it possible to simply drown out the noise?
There is becoming a worrying trend within football of mental health suffers both from players still within the game and those that have retired. Multiple charities have been set up in order to try and fix the problem, but it is no easy answer. Despite the riches in football, there is clearly a side the public generally doesn’t see, precisely what happens when football ends?
Interestingly there seems to be an overwhelming swell of goalkeepers who suffer from depression following their football careers, both Chris Kirkland and Mark Crossley have openly spoken about their own personal issues after leaving the sport they had been engrossed in for such a long time.
Crossley enjoyed a stellar career of over 30 years in the game before finishing his last job as Notts County caretaker boss in 2018, a former Welsh international who played over 300 times for Nottingham Forest, now Crossley has formed WATCH (Walking And Talking Charity Hikes), a charity aiming to support people suffering from mental health issues and raise funds for other charities.
It has long been said, jovially, that goalkeepers are a different breed to normal footballers, often eccentric, elaborate, and a touch of the crazy. But what about the other side? The more serious side, perhaps instead of passing them off as simply different, more time could be spent concerned with their well-being.
Often left to face all the music, most of it negative, without the right support from teammates, fans, and managers, the life of a goalkeeper can indeed be a lonely existence.
That’s just the first-choice option, imagine forever being the number two… Yes, picking up an often healthy wage for training, but for most who have worked hard to reach the pinnacle, forever in a watching brief can be a painful existence, destined to only ever kick balls at the number one during warm-ups and soak up the atmosphere from the bench, a cruel position.
Imagine an individual with pre-existing mental health problems, coupled with the disillusioned life of a back-up goalkeeper, it is easy to see how the situation can descend down a destructive path.
The Robert Enke Foundation was set up following the tragic death of the German goalkeeper and primarily has a focus on the mental health of players.