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.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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