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A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke

A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke
Ronald Reng
Yellow Jersey, 400pp, £16.99

On 10 November 2009 the German goalkeeper Robert Enke kissed his baby daughter Leila, said goodbye to his wife, Teresa, and left the house. He said he would be back at about 6.30pm after training at his club, Hannover 96.

When he didn't return, Teresa called his goalkeeping coach, Jörg Sievers. When might she expect her husband back from training? "The line fell silent," writes Ronald Reng. "At last Sievers said, carefully, 'There was no training today.'" Enke had driven around for eight hours, and then lain down on the railway line in front of the regional express that runs between Hamburg and Bremen. He was a depressive, something he kept secret in football.

Enke had often talked to his friend Reng, a journalist-cum-novelist, about writing a book together. Now Reng has done it alone, beautifully. Enke's widow gave him the dead man's diaries and the poems he had written on his mobile. In fact, Reng writes, "I have deliberately excluded passages [from the diaries] that I see as too revealing." Not many biographers would do that. The upshot is a book not just about Enke and depression, but about the stress that pervades most footballers' lives.

East German-born Enke rose fast. Not yet 21, he was keeping goal in the Bundesliga, Germany's top division. Shortly after that he joined Benfica in Lisbon. With hindsight, it seems ominous that Enke returned home in a panic right after signing the contract, but soon he was thriving in Portugal. When Reng first met him, over lunch in Lisbon, he saw "a professional sportsman inspired by the idea that he has to climb ever further, ever higher". They became friends, and Reng judiciously slips himself into the book as a minor character.

Enke climbed as high as Barcelona - but he played just one game for the Catalan club, a cup match in 2002 against the third-division side Novelda. Stricken with fear, he let in three soft goals and Barcelona lost. His captain blamed him at the post-match press conference, which triggered a depression. Enke fled to Istanbul and Fenerbahçe, where again he played only one match, a howler, before running away from Turkey. Then this excellent keeper briefly became unemployed. He recovered his equilibrium only at smaller clubs, first Tenerife, and then Hannover, his last team.

Enke had depression and was therefore an exception, but his fears were fairly typical for a footballer. After all, usually football is presented as the simplest story: victory or defeat, success or failure, hero or villain. The average football player's career is a series of dislocations (transfers) punctuated by public humiliations.

For goalkeepers, however, the humiliations are worse, as Reng, an amateur keeper, knows. Because it is often their mistakes that decide the outcome of a match, keepers live in anxiety, yet they rarely talk about it. Their profession requires that they present themselves as stoics, as safe pairs of hands. Anyone who "can't take the pressure" is seen as suspect. Indeed, football's preferred pedagogic method is the application of pressure. Frans Hoek, goalkeeping coach at Barcelona when Enke was there, would scream at his keepers in his heavy Dutch accent: "Esto noooo! [Not that!]" Enke wasn't the only goalie who was generally happier to be the substitute than have to perform.

Several other keepers confess their fears to Reng. René Adler, who, in that autumn of 2009, looked like Enke's main rival to claim the German goalkeeping jersey at the 2010 World Cup, recalls how Enke, as a friend, had advised him not to join a big club until he felt ready. Ignore the world's pressure to move upward, he said. Enjoy how well you are doing now. This was heresy in a game where everyone - players, fans and the media - takes it for granted that it is better to play for a big club than a small one ("It's a dream come true"), better to be a starter than a reserve. Adler tells Reng: "Among Bundesliga professionals you're always showing off about how strong you are. It was really good to talk to someone about the anxieties."

Enke's battle with Adler for the German shirt caused him great angst. Yet we will never know whether it was that, or a belated reaction to the death in 2006 of his two-year-old daughter, Lara (born with heart problems), or something else apparently trivial, that sent him into a depression again in the summer of 2009. "If you could just have my head for half an hour, you'd know why I go mad," he once told Teresa. Hoping to play at the World Cup, he felt unable to come out as a depressive. Reng suspects it is why Enke wanted to write a book. It would have been his testimony.

At times, it is almost unbearably painful to read A Life Too Short, but this is the mature work of a writer who has gone far beyond sensationalism. It allows you to turn back and read football differently. All England fans will recall the soft American shot that the English goalkeeper Robert Green muffed last year during the country's first game at the World Cup in South Africa. He was promptly dropped from the squad. It all makes me wonder now: did Green subconsciously intend to miss that ball because he wanted to avoid the angst?

Simon Kuper is the author of "The Football Men: Up Close With the Giants of the Modern Game" (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B