Books interview: Ronald Reng

The tragic life and death of Robert Enke.

On 10 November 2009, the goalkeeper of the German national team, Robert Enke, stepped in front of a passenger train near Hanover. He was 32 years old. Before his suicide, Enke had been talking to his friend, the journalist Ronald Reng, about working together on his autobiography. After Enke's death, Reng wrote a book about his late friend. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke has now been translated into English. I talked to Reng when he came to London last week.

You were going to work with Robert Enke on his autobiography, weren't you?

Yes. We never discussed in detail what we would write about. It was something that was spur of the moment, and to be honest for many years it was more his idea than it was mine. In particular because I didn't know about his depression. So we talked about it vaguely. I remember one conversation I had with him in 2008, where I suggested to him that maybe we could have a double biography about his life, and his best friend Marco Villa. Because, frankly, I thought just his biography wouldn't be enough of a story.

When we met we were romanticising and dreaming about one day writing the book. Later on, when he had died, I learned from [his wife]Teresa and his two closest friends that he talked quite a lot about the book to them. He and Teresa had this vision, a dream scenario, that one day Robert would have moved to Lisbon and we would all sit on a roof terrace and contemplate his autobiography.

You say you didn't know about his depression. And that was true of everybody close to him apart from Teresa wasn't it? His teammates and his managers didn't know.

In total, including members of his family, there were probably about ten or 12 people who would have known. And I think it tells you a lot that he didn't tell someone like me; it tells you a lot about the illness. People feel ashamed, basically, and they feel they can't tell anybody. Occasionally he discussed with Teresa whether he should tell me. I remember one phone conversation when he said to me "Ronnie, I was discussing with Teresa if you know something". I said "what do you mean?" And he said "No, no, I'll tell you later." That day I'm pretty sure he was thinking about the depression.

At some stage I wrote a newspaper article about him, a profile. And he thought at that stage I might know about his depression and write about it in the article. I realised that, particularly when he went to Barcelona, he was very sensitive and he was blaming himself alot. I saw him when he was down and I remember one time when I talked to him that his face was like a stone wall, it wasn't moving. But I had no notion about depression, I didn't realise. I just thought "what an unhappy man".

There was a feeling in German football that Enke was unusual. Successful German goalkeepers have always been of a certain psychological type - flamboyant, arrogant. One thinks of Sepp Maier, Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn and Toni Schumacher. Enke was not like that at all was he?

And he suffered from that. We talked about that many times because he had this feeling that the public in Germany didn't appreciate him as a goalkeeper, in particular because they always compared him to the goalkeepers you just mentioned. He was taking on everything, it was him against the world. There were a lot of comments being made about Robert when he joined the Germany team. People were saying "Is he strong enough? He should be more outgoing." But I think that in Tenerife from 2004, he consciously chose his goalkeeping style and technique. He wanted to be somebody different from Oliver Kahn. I think because he played abroad so many years, and he saw the Argentininian goalkeepers school, the Spanish goalkeepers school ... They are very different from the German school. More technical, not as expressive as someone like Oliver Kahn.

The former German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld once said: "Enke has no charisma" - an extraordinary thing to say.

Yes, that sums up the public mood towards Robert at the time when he joined the German squad. People were just looking at him and judging his his unexpressive style as a lack of charisma. But there were a few people in German football, people like Andy Köpke, the German goalkeeping coach, who regarded it as a strength that he didn't make a show of things, that he was rather looking to position himself very well in goal and was not looking for the great save.

The position of goalkeeper is more exposed than any other on the pitch isn't it?

Yes, definitely. In the end, you are always measured by mistakes. And I think what is particularly strong in goalkeepers is the fear of letting others down. In Robert's case, the fear of making mistakes. I think at some stage every goalkeeper knows that fear, and in the best times he uses that fear to make him concentrate even harder. But obviously Robert had a very different fear as well. Depression is a different level of fear.

Even as an adolescent, he was gripped by that fear wasn't he?

I think in hindsight there were signs that he was prone to depression. And obviously it's the question that I, and the people that know him, ask ourselves all the time now: would it have been different if he hadn't been a goalkeeper? And obviously we can't answer that. It seems that he was prone to depression and he might have got depressed in a different environment and a different job as well. What is clear is that his bouts of depression were often triggered by football.

You mentioned his time at Tenerife. That was when his career got back on track, because his unsuccessful spell at Barcelona had been a pretty dark time for him hadn't it?

He was basically a forgotten goalkeeper in the Spanish second division. He played fantastically in Tenerife because he was so happy to be alive. But it was just one man in German football who discovered him and still believed in him. Ewald Lienen, the manager of Hannover 96, had been the coach at Tenerife years before that. Robert was always acutely aware that his career could have petered out in the Spanish second division. Though at the time in Tenerife he certainly wouldn't have minded; playing wasn't that important to him anymore.

Do you think Tenerife was where he was happiest in his career?

Yes I would think so. I's known him since 2002. He was happy maybe in the first year at Hannover 96 as well. Obviously his daughter had been born with a heart disease and that took away a lot of joy from him later on.

After he died, there was an extraordinary expression of collective national mourning in Germany. Did you expect that?

I was certainly taken aback. There was a feeling of not knowing what to make of it, and a lot of people were absolutely moved by his death and they wanted to show their grief There was a beautiful feeling in the nation of a will to do things better, to treat each other better. This was something totally new in Germany - a big crowd gathering together to mourn.

It's only two years since Robert Enke died. Do you think attitudes to depression and mental illness have changed in Germany. Specifically inside German football, which is a very hard, unforgiving environment.

In football in Germany it has changed a lot; people are much more aware of depression.

How closely did you collaborate with Enke's wife Teresa on this book?

A closely as I could. Teresa handed over to me everything she had of Robert's. I went to his office and found huge boxes of photos, of newspaper clippings. I could have stayed at her house for weeks. I think I went over four times, each time for a week. I found old boxes of letters they had written each other. I didn't want to read these, so I gave the letters to Teresa and she read over them again. She had s different kind of motivation to me, of course. She wanted his story to be told once and for all.

For the ten months I worked on the book, I was living with a dead friend, doing nothing else. I interviewed 40-odd people and not a single one turned the interview down. The interviews turned into conversations and we were sitting down for hours. Even with someone like Victor Valdes at Barcelona - the press officer said half an hour, and Victor said "No, no, he must have all the time he needs." It was extraordinary, because everybody was so moved by Robert's death.

Ronald Reng's "A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke" is published by Yellow Jersey (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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