The tragedy of Robert Enke

The tragedy of Robert Enke

BODO ILGNER, Andreas Köpke, Oliver Kahn, Jens Lehmann, Manuel Neuer; the list of Germany’s first-choice goalkeepers over the past three decades reads off like a reel of dynastic succession. Not only is it successively easier on the tongue, it also represents some sort of evolution in the goalkeeping lineage, eventually culminating – for now – into the archetypal sweeper-keeper, a far-cry from the traditionalist Illgner.

Lesser-known is the fact that in the months running up to the 2010 World Cup, Neuer was not the first-choice to go to South Africa. With the substitute places seemingly settled for Bremen’s Tim Wiese and perpetual Kahn understudy Hans Jörg-Butt, three men fought for the number one shirt, none eventually making the cut.

The first, Timo Hildebrand, had an excellent record with Stuttgart, only to weaken his suit upon moving to Valencia in 2007. Failing to displace the established Santiago Cañizares, his form petered out after moving to Hoffenheim in 2008, thus decisively ruling him out. The second, Leverkusen’s René Adler, was relatively inexperienced and had Neuer for competition in the same ‘young and exciting’ bracket.

The third pretender, unlike Adler, had experience outside the Bundesliga, and unlike Hildebrand, had tasted success abroad with Benfica, and to some extent, Tenerife. Now with mid-table strugglers Hannover, he performed week in week out in goal, leading many to plump for him as first choice.

With the dream seemingly in sight, his body was found on the Eilvese train crossing on 10 November 2009. The suicide note recovered left no doubt of the cause. His name was Robert Enke.

Born to Gisela and Dirk Enke on 24 August 1977, Enke marked himself as a quiet, thoughtful child, further marked by the presence of two older siblings in the family. The reunification of Germany was the only notable event of his otherwise uneventful youth, with the reopened access to the West allowing father Dirk to reestablish contact with other relatives on that side of Germany.

Enke could’ve been forgiven for dreaming about an entirely different jersey number in his early days. Playing for local team SV Jenapharm in erstwhile East Germany, he first caught the attention of Carl Zeiss Jena in 1985, albeit as a striker. Like countless others, a nameless yet prescient coach would engineer the positional switch at Jena, with young Enke moving soon to represent Germany against England in a youth international at Wembley.

Already in a league with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon by virtue of his positional switch, Enke would debut unremarkably for Jena in 1995, the club having been seeded in the second division after reunification. Despite making only three appearances, he’d earn a move to Borussia Mönchengladbach the next year, initially as an understudy to Uwe Kamps.

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Having finished fourth in 1995/96, Gladbach now had the likes of Sebastian Deisler and Enke in their ranks, seemingly attempting to relive the era of the 1970s, when a young and hungry team made regular and powerful appearances in the European Cup. Topping off this emerging crop was a young striker named Marco Villa, who threatened by scoring three goals in his first seven games.

His first winter was hard. Enke would later recall the experience to journalist Ronald Reng, noting his intimidation in training from the fiercely competitive Kamps, whose physique and style, both mildly reminiscent of Oliver Kahn, initially made Enke wonder if he was cut out for the Bundesliga. In addition, a core made up of experienced Bundesliga heads such as Patrik Andersson, Martin Dahlin and Stefan Effenberg maintained a tough culture in the side. While part of the intimidation was natural to any youngster learning the ropes in a league such as the Bundesliga, another factor was crucial to both Enke the goalkeeper, and Enke the man.

It may be argued that keeping the goalkeepers fired up is the toughest part of a manager’s man-management abilities. Since only one of them may play in a game, and such a choice of the one being usually very stable, it falls on the manager to ensure that the substitute goalkeepers feel valued, despite their desire for minutes not being met. Otherwise, conditions are ripe for a benched goalkeeper to keep doubting himself, a cycle hard to overcome. With a Gladbach legend such as Kamps up against him, Enke had every right to doubt himself.

However, his efforts in training did not eventually go unnoticed. Owing to injuries to Kamps, Enke would eventually debut in the 1998/99 season, with the game ending a relatively serene 3-0 to Gladbach. However, the loss of Effenberg and Dahlin, who had been sold the previous season, showed. Die Fohlen soon fell to the bottom of the table despite impressive performances by Enke. Amidst a conflict between the strikers, a paper-thin defence and a rapid turnover of managers on the horizon, Gladbach hosted Leverkusen on 30 October 1998. Enke shipped eight as the game ended 8-2.

A week later, relegation became merely a matter of time, as Wolfsburg won 7-1, leading to the dismissal of manager Friedel Rausch, himself installed in the middle of the season. The rapid turnover of coaches and the disorganization on show disturbed Enke, who dithered on a contract extension, eventually agreeing to leave at the end of the season.

This decision to leave, being announced immediately by the board, made Enke the target of irate fans, who’d cause a din with him ‘keeping on the home end. Enke would later recount feeling betrayed by the board, as if being punished for his honesty by not engaging in an eventually pointless negotiation with the team set to go down.

The Leverkusen game, as well as his reaction to irate, passionate and sometimes irrational fans, may well reveal another side to Enke. Being born to a psychologist in a family impacted by German reunification may have sensitively attuned the young goalkeeper to both real and imagined opinions of others. His biographer, Ronald Reng, notes how he’d fear letting in a goal, or even continue to analyse a goal conceded when it was clear that he wasn’t at fault. In other words, Enke, consumed by his passion for the game, would need an outlet to switch off, a need which would recur, sometimes fulfilled, in subsequent years.

Despite interest from 1860 Munich, the 22-year-old would eventually sign for Jupp Heynckes’ Benfica. Heynckes had watched Gladbach closely during his sabbatical in 1998/99, and Enke moved with the number one spot seemingly assured.

‘I can’t stay here. It’s not working’. Enke lay in his hotel room, an hour after having signed for Benfica. As he wept into the pillow, his girlfriend and agent wondered about the best course of action. Following a swift discussion with Heynckes, it was decided that the goalkeeper would temporarily fly to Germany, being seemingly intimidated by the Portuguese paparazzi.

With the transfer now doubtful, Heynckes signed Carlos Bossio from Estudiantes. Enke would eventually return as the second goalkeeper, having been convinced of the need to honour his contract, despite his initial reservations over the move.

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The signing of Bossio, along with the presence of a German support staff, seemed to calm Enke. He would spend the evenings in the gym along with Heynckes and goalkeeping coach Walter Junghans, thus forming a small German clique which served to support him. With Bossio pushing him in training, it now seemed that Enke could eventually settle down at the club.

With Heynckes unimpressed by Bossio, Enke eventually started the season opener for Benfica, impressing in a 1-1 draw against Rio Ave. Benfica, the Lisbon press and a young boy named José Moreira soon took to Enke, establishing him as the club’s beloved first-choice by November that year.

Moriera, a 17-year-old goalkeeper promoted from the B team, spent a lot of time with Enke, absorbing from him just as Enke had done from Kamps a few years earlier. As the youngster modelled his game on Enke, the German picked up Portuguese from him, eventually proving fluent enough to deliver a press conference in the language by the end of the year.

Despite the departure of Heynckes four days into the 2000-01 season, Enke would remain first-choice under the following managers, among them José Mourinho. In a far cry from his initial reservations, Enke and his wife Teresa’s diaries would regularly refer to their contentment at being in Lisbon by 2001/02, to the point that the goalkeeper refused overtures from Manchester United and Arsenal in 2001.

Part of the contentment stemmed from the fact that he was valued both by the management and the fans, despite Benfica not winning major honours during Enke’s time at the club. In Moreira, Enke had a young student who both looked up to him and enjoyed his company, with the older man frequently referring to him as ‘my little brother’. In the exchange of languages, and the time both would spend watching movies together, Enke would find a useful outlet, helping his internal support system survive the departures of Heynckes and Junghans earlier.

Having initially moved to reach the Champions League, Enke failed to appear in Europe’s premier competition during his time with Benfica. Deprived of European attention, a factor crucial to stay in the eyes of the German press while abroad, Enke failed to cause a serious dent in the debate for the understudy to Kahn, despite his consistent performances for Benfica. The same probably hurt his chances of making the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, with Lehmann being preferred as an understudy to Kahn.

Thus, recognising the need to take his career to a higher level, Enke decided to leave Benfica in the summer of 2002, opting to play under another Champions League winner, Louis van Gaal, at Barcelona.

Now aged 25, Enke’s move to Barcelona seemed fitting for a promising goalkeeper approaching his peak. Barcelona were now in transition, seeking to gradually recover from the losses of Ronaldo, Luís Figo and Pep Guardiola in recent years, which seemed to mean that chances would abound.

Nowhere did this seem truer than the goalkeeping spot, where Barcelona had taken to juggling incumbents ever since the departure of Andoni Zubizaretta. The likes of Vítor Baía, Carles Busquets and Ruud Hesp had all failed to maintain a hold over the position. However, the presence of Argentine international Roberto Bonano and young gun Víctor Valdés, along with the signing of Enke, seemed to be Barcelona’s best shot at overcoming their ‘curse’.

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Despite the promise of playing in the Champions League with one of Spain’s most storied clubs, Enke’s move to Barcelona seems a grave miscalculation in hindsight. The Catalan club’s approach to goalkeepers, with the gloveman often staying at the edge of the box with the team on attack, hardly suited the traditionalist Enke, who rarely ventured out even to catch crosses.

Picking up the new style under goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek proved hard. Bonano and Valdés had higher starting positions, allowing both to absorb the style more easily, leaving Enke as the recipient of most of Hoek’s feedback. Enke’s biography seems to leave the impression that the Barcelona coaching staff did not fully comprehend the difficulty of the stylistic transition, and sought to mould Enke into a Barcelona keeper faster than possible. Thus, being a regular recipient of Hoek’s corrective feedback, he was possibly left doubting the style which had served him well for years.

The second miscalculation on Enke’s part lay in the identity of his manager. It may be argued that Enke’s time at Benfica succeeded because the staff was sensitive enough to help the new charge acclimatise, being sensitive enough to the goalkeeper’s anxiety issues. Under Van Gaal’s tough, authoritarian style, Enke would not have survived save for a far thicker skin.

The fact was borne out quickly in one of Enke’s first interactions with Van Gaal, wherein the Dutchman openly admitted to not knowing about the German custodian, and only signing him at the behest of Barcelona’s sporting director. While this could be filed as a motivation tactic to fire the new signing up, Enke was possibly the least suited recipient of the same.

Enke finally debuted in a Copa del Rey game against third-tier Novelda, with most of the starters being rested. Two of the new signings, Enke and fellow Barcelona struggler Juan Román Riquelme, were under the spotlight.

At least in looking back, Hoek acknowledged the scale of the challenge. He noted that the pressure of proving oneself in a cup game is hard, particularly for a substitute goalkeeper lacking match sharpness. Adding to that, the pitch at Novelda was a far cry from the cultured surfaces of La Liga Barcelona was used to, with the third tier being subject to far less stringent norms. Crucially, for the evening game, their floodlights were barely of the expected level.

Everything changed on the hour. Despite being 1-0 up, with Enke relatively untroubled till then, Barcelona contrived to let in three in 20 minutes, losing 3-2. Michael Reiziger lost his man in conceding the first, Fábio Rochemback lost the ball to pressure, putting Novelda forward Toni Madrigal one-on-one for the second, and a mix-up between Frank de Boer and Enke for a cross led to the third, capping a half of horrors for Barcelona’s three-man defence.

The definitive image, however, remains of De Boer screaming at Enke after having conceded the last goal. Van Gaal would later hand the defender a dressing down for the same, but the goalkeeper received little attention. Despite a pair of otherwise uneventful Champions League appearances, Enke would remain low in the pecking order, with the plucky Valdés establishing himself under Van Gaal, a telling development given the pair’s standoff at Manchester United a decade later.

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With the club a lowly 12th in the league standings in January 2003, Van Gaal opted to leave the club, and replacement Radomir Antić would not tamper much with the status quo. The four months after Novelda had taken a toll on Enke, and he began quietly visiting a specialist in his attempt to battle depression. In the midst of all this, yet another German would intervene to snap Enke out of his inactivity, with Christoph Daum’s Fenerbahçe taking him on loan until the end of the 2003/04 season.

Both Enke and his wife Teresa envisioned the move to be temporary, believing that a series of solid performances would give him a way back at Barcelona under new manager Frank Rijkaard. His family, therefore, stayed in Barcelona, with agent Jörg Neblung being Enke’s only tangible support in Istanbul.

However, all parties involved, none more so than the Enkes, deeply misunderstood the extent of the depression. A move to a culture as different as Turkey’s would have been unnerving enough for Enke at his sunniest, but moving to one of Europe’s most passionate clubs in such a mental state deeply rattled the German. He made only one appearance for the club, a 3-0 reversal to city rivals İstanbulspor. Faced with the wrath of the passionate Fenerbahçe fans after the game, Enke realised the need for his support system in the midst of his depression, and expressed a desire to have the loan terminated.

Even as Fenerbahçe understandably protested, Enke returned to the Camp Nou, left to train outside the first team given his outstanding commitments to the Turkish club. It may be inferred that Barcelona’s experience of handling the situation possibly affected Rijkaard’s opinion of Enke, thus closing the door for the German to be a part of one of the decade’s most exciting sides. Barcelona eventually entertained an offer from Segunda División side Tenerife to take the man on loan, hoping that a lesser stage might exorcise his demons.

If Enke’s fall from his highs at Benfica were tragic, the trajectory of former Gladbach teammate, striker Marco Villa, was the farce. Earmarked for big things after scoring three goals in his first seven Bundesliga appearances, Villa eventually tumbled down the leagues, winding up in the Italian fourth division. Despite their various travels, the two kept in touch, with Villa often lending an understanding ear to Enke’s self-doubt.

The friendship of the two lays bare an interesting paradox, crucial to understanding the thought process behind Enke’s move to the Canary Islands. Villa, with his persistent movement between clubs, seemed a restless spirit, hoping to find once again the carefree 18-year-old who often played the prankster in the Gladbach dressing room. In a far cry from the Beckhams and Ronaldos of this world, who seem to thrive on the pressure generated by the media and fans, the likes of Villa eventually content themselves with life in the lower leagues, looking to simply play without the relentless media glare.

This aversion to the media glare also manifested itself in Enke, though, as although he accepted this move, he was never able to free himself of his desire to play for the best, wherein media scrutiny is a given. Eventually frazzled by the politics and media frenzy at Barcelona and the ramifications of his abortive move to Fenerbahçe, Enke resigned to stepping down a notch, realising the need to rediscover his passion for life between the sticks.

Tenerife had loaned him as a backup to established Segunda keeper, Álvaro Iglesias. Away from the media glare in the second tier, and freed from the expectations of being first choice, Enke the man eventually came to the fore again. Rediscovering the joy of living alone, topped up by the agreeable weather in the Canary Islands, Enke was finally able to be one with the team, often lending his car to teammates in need, and equipping his fellow goalkeepers with the same Absolutgrip gloves he often preferred.

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Despite being, in his own assessment, far better than incumbent number one Iglesias, Enke was graceful enough to note the consistency of Iglesias’ performances, and went as far as to improve his bearings for crosses by observing the older custodian. Staying backup to Iglesias at a higher wage did not perturb him, as he reassured his agent time and again that his chance would come. He was proven right, just as his emotional recovery seemed complete.

An injury to Iglesias meant that Enke asserted himself in his first game in nine months, a 2-1 win over Elche, eventually nailing down the spot until the end of the season. His performances, while lifting Tenerife from a lowly 20th to a scarcely respectable eighth did not, understandably, catch the eye of the German FA, meaning that Enke would miss Euro 2004. Not that the snub mattered. Enke had been unusually content at Tenerife and saw life with a mid-table side a distinct possibility, as it finally seemed that he was coming to terms with his own limitations.

The spell at Tenerife evokes another side to his sensitivity; Enke just wanted to be understood by his teammates and staff. Once fully trusted, it ceased to matter to him whether he was starting or not, and he could perform with relative freedom. This sensitivity, as seen at both Tenerife and Benfica, could also extend to mentoring his own competitors in the side, eventually working to the benefit of the squad.

While one is tempted to blame numerous people for Enke’s eventual maladjustment to Barcelona, it may be argued that the various conflicting interests on show at a Barcelona or Real Madrid could not have realistically afforded Enke the comfort zone to grow into the new levels expected of him. Quite simply, in hindsight, Barcelona at the time was not the club to meet Enke’s needs, even if they could match his ambitions. And for that, it’d be unfair to pin the blame completely on either party.

As much as he’d have liked to continue with Tenerife, or in Spain in general, it was not to be. His first child was due, and he opted to return to Germany with Hannover. His first two years at Hannover were otherwise uneventful on the field. Enke continued his impressive form from Tenerife, and settled in well, eventually courting interest from Stuttgart before signing a contract extension in 2006. The same, however, could not be said of his personal life.

During his wife Teresa’s pregnancy, it was revealed that the child could be born with health problems, with an abortion recommended. The decision to eventually have the child had a major bearing on Enke’s decision to return to Germany, realising the need to be closer home with a possibly sick child.

His daughter, Lara, was born in late 2004 with a heart defect, meaning that it was about three months before she was able to come home. Surgery to fix the defect succeeded, but her heart remained weak, and side effects from the surgery meant that Lara went deaf. This could only be remedied by cochlear implants, but her body could not take the strain of the operation, and she eventually died in 2006.

Despite being distraught, Enke overcame the incident, continuing to perform for Hannover as team captain under new coach Dieter Hecking. His consistency, including being voted as the league’s best goalkeeper for the 2007/08 season, catapulted him into the German reckoning, where he was in notable competition with Leverkusen starlet René Adler. Enke could’ve been forgiven for being reminded of a certain Víctor Valdés when seeing Adler’s young, ebullient nature, but the two did begin to get along when the youngster worked actively to resolve the differences between the two.

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The responsibility of team captain, otherwise a non-sequitur for Enke in happier times, gradually became a burden during Hecking’s final season, when he often felt the need to be different things to different people. His biographer, Ronald Reng, notes with particular attention the difficulty Enke faced in 2009 when tasked with communicating to the coach that the team wanted him to leave, amidst a general belief that Hecking was asking too much of the lot.

The doubt over the German number one position for the World Cup, as referenced in the competition between Hildebrand, Adler, Neuer and Enke, coupled with the tougher aspects of captaincy, conspired to take their toll on Enke. The bout of depression which would eventually kill him had been visible since the beginning of the 2009/10 season, with Teresa working actively to create a support system around Enke within the team, and midfielder Hanno Balitsch actively keeping an eye on his captain and routinely encouraging him in training.

The Enkes had also adopted a girl, Leila, at the same time. Coupled with Enke’s growing pains chronicled above, it may be argued that the young girl’s presence triggered within Enke a hidden well of despondency from Lara’s death, even though depression can be rarely attributed to one sole cause.

As Enke began to feel darker in his last weeks, Teresa and Neblung encouraged him to come out in the open about his depression, just as Deisler had done a few years ago. His final appearances were marked by a complete lack of expression, as if conditioned reflexes were enough to carry the man through 90 minutes of play. Often, as in his final appearance in a 2-2 draw against Hamburg, they were.

Two days later, having snuck out of his home under the pretext of training, Enke drove around his city, Empede, the whole day, before throwing himself in front of a train that evening.

The perception of goalkeepers, and the demands we make of them, are surprisingly contradictory. While we acknowledge that goalkeeping is an impressively lonely pursuit, even denying the practitioner the possibility of making pairs, as often occurs with outfield players, we somehow expect goalkeepers to not be affected by this loneliness, even though loneliness in general may break most of us.

A much-neglected part of the debate following Enke’s demise remains the need to encourage sportspersons to speak up about depression. Not only because the high-pressure situations they face is extremely conducive to the illness, but also because they may help millions of other patients by owning up to such illnesses in their capacity as role models.

Equally important is the need to identify when they can be encouraged to talk about it, for encouraging Enke to own up to his depression while he was in the midst of it may not have been the right move. Granted, there are no easy answers to such questions, but raising them and encouraging debate will be a good start for sport.

Did Robert Enke’s unique position kill him? Would he have fared well as an outfielder, knowing that those positions are more prone to rotation, allowing a better scope for the man-management Enke desperately pined for throughout his career? Would he have been better served by retiring early, à la Deisler, and moving into the mentoring role he so enjoyed with the likes of José Moreira?

The case of Enke, while not an example of everything wrong with the modern pressures of the game, does remain an instructive case study on how to improve the game’s handling at various levels, and on the part of various stakeholders, in the future. For that alone, and for his famed move of turning one knee inwards while facing a one-on-one situation, the dour, sensitive, yet immensely relatable Enke will always be celebrated, just perhaps a little too late.

By Avtansh Behal  

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