A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke

By Ronald Reng

Yellow Jersey Press, 2012

‘He could only lose … if everything went as planned, Barca would win 3-0 or 4-0 and no one would mention the goalkeeper. If it went wrong, he would get the blame.’ It’s 2002 and Robert Enke’s Barcelona debut, a Copa Del Rey tie against minnows FC Novelda. It’s his first chance to impress but in the new surrounds of Spain, under pressure from manager Louis van Gaal to conform to Barca’s sweeper-keeper tactics, the German keeper is too anxious to see the positive side. What follows is one of sports writing’s greatest chapters. Lower league journeyman Toni Madrigal scores a hat-trick in his team’s historic victory over the La Liga giants. Enke isn’t solely culpable for any of the 3 goals he concedes and yet defender Frank de Boer breaks ‘an unwritten law in professional football: never criticise your team-mates in public’. And thus begins his first bout of depression.

Explaining why A Life Too Short surpasses other sporting biographies is simple; it’s the absorbing, larger-than-sport story of a talented and likeable individual, told by a skilled writer with an intimate understanding of his subject matter. As such, it’s a brilliant and unique proposition, a winner by default. What’s more important to convey, therefore, is why this book is quite so significant in a wider context. It’s the twinned themes of sport and mental health but it’s more nuanced than that, a question of tone and perspective.

Reng narrates the tragedy of his great friend with gentle comprehension and understated emotion. In other, more Hollywoodized hands, Enke might have become the greatest keeper that ever lived, a saint between the sticks. Instead, he is a sensitive and sometimes flawed human being, a highly talented but not unimpeachable footballer, ‘a warm-hearted person who believed that humility isn’t a bad character trait, even for a goalkeeper’. With its blend of psychological detail, anecdotes and interviews, A Life Too Short has a remarkably personal feel. Reng is greatly assisted by Enke’s diary-keeping and his intelligent and perceptive self-analysis. When the crowd cheers a great save during his comeback at Tenerife, Enke offers an important reminder of the motivational bond between player and supporter – ‘That was what I missed most, that feeling that what you do is important for somebody’. Elsewhere, he confesses to close friend Jörg, ‘Football turns you into someone who always wants more, who’s never content.’

Rarely have the mental pressures of sport been laid so bare. Early on we’re told that Enke ‘developed a mechanism for turning inner nerves into outward peace. Only very rarely did the mechanism break down.’ At Borussia Mönchengladbach, he concedes 15 goals in 2 games and yet rises above the chaos with dignity and composure. He even copes with a difficult transition to Portugal at the tender age of 21. But when this mechanism does break down, the effects are devastating. Following the Novelda episode, Enke notes in his diary, ‘All the self-confidence I built up in three years at Lisbon has been taken away from me.’ He can’t stop playing the errors over in his head and becomes terrified of his perceived weakness for crosses. Ultimately, he lacks the mala leche that maintains the likes of Victor Valdes and Oliver Kahn; anxiety consumes him. As his close friend Marco Villa puts it, ‘If all you have is football, and it goes wrong, you’re left with nothing but doubts.’

The subtle grip of the narrative is such that it’s possible to forget the tragic conclusion we already know. You’re rooting for Enke as he rediscovers his love for the sport at Tenerife and then Hannover, as his performances earn him a recall to the national side and even the coveted No.1 jersey. You worry about his mental stability but with a loving wife, close friends and a baby daughter, it’s hard to see what can go so horribly wrong. But that, in a way, is the message of the story. Depression is an illness that hits suddenly, often without an obvious trigger. It leaves you physically and mentally exhausted, reducing the mind ‘to a tiny crack through which only negative impulses could slip’, and yet a sufferer can still struggle through their daily life without letting on. Until, that is, they see suicide as the only escape from the darkness. ‘Perhaps this book will do something to help depressives find more sympathy and understanding’, Reng says in the epilogue. A Life Too Short’s myth-busting insight into the tragedy of Robert Enke will achieve this and much, much more.

Buy it here

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