A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng
Published by Yellow Jersey
Like all the best sports books, Ronald Reng’s A Life Too Short is about so much more than sport. The biography of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide in 2009, it is a quiet yet powerful tribute to a young man ripped apart by clinical depression. Football is the crucible in which Enke’s anxious and depressive thoughts were able to take free rein, and in many ways exacerbate his problems, but ultimately it’s only the context to a very moving life-story. Despite his professional success, rising to the status of German national keeper, Enke was beset by periodic panic attacks and anxiety since adolescence, spiralling into two major depressive episodes in adulthood. His death was tragic in every way, but if Reng’s work can contribute to a wider understanding of depression, then at least something, however small, will have come from it.
What is perhaps most impressive is the understated yet somehow homely style in which the book is written. Uncluttered by a need to eulogise, Reng tells the story of Enke’s life in both long arcs and short anecdotes, the testimony of his friends and family drawing the character of a shy but fairly serious adolescent growing up in East Germany before the fall of the wall. Enke became a goalkeeper by chance when his local youth team needed someone to fill the role, and quickly showed he was a natural. Tellingly, however, when he was promoted to play with boys in an older age group, he was hamstrung by pressure, the first signs of a willingness to blame himself unnecessarily; to magnify what he perceived were his mistakes. As a goalkeeper, the position where misjudgements are most crucial to the outcome of a game, these thoughts had greater scope for credence, even if they weren’t true.
Enke was also not your typical footballer. He eschewed the bravado and posturing of his fellow professionals, preferring to stay at home with his girlfriend and their assorted pets than drink with the team. Quiet and reserved, his friends came from home, or outside football. And so, gradually but not theatrically, Reng shows us a thoughtful young man, slightly withdrawn, but genuine and caring. He’s likeable. Importantly, the book doesn’t pretend that Robert Enke was special, or that he was somehow destined for mental health problems because he didn’t go to nightclubs with the lads.
In fact, what is so striking about A Life Too Short is the very ordinariness of Robert Enke and the thought processes that were able to control him, and ultimately kill him. Who hasn’t exaggerated their own mistakes, their own perceived weaknesses? Who hasn’t blamed themselves when they were not to blame? Who hasn’t been unable to see the bigger picture? These are all normal feelings, ideas that run through most of our minds at some point in time. Sometimes they run stronger than others, but to doubt is a most human of traits.
The culture in which Robert Enke lived and worked did, of course, accentuate his depression. Not only did he play in the highest pressure position, but his success meant he was also centre of attention to both media and supporters. When things were going well, this was fine. But, as when Enke was blamed for a cup defeat in his first game for Barcelona, footballers aren’t always in control of the events that shape their careers, and the people around them don’t always do the right thing. Whilst Enke had a strong ally in his agent Jorge, much more of a friend than a business partner, the clubs he played for weren’t always so supportive. You wonder how many other young footballers who move abroad suffer from strong feelings of isolation and anxiety even if, unlike Robert Enke, this doesn’t develop into a more serious illness.
A Life Too Short had me in tears by its tragic end. Reng describes the debilitating darkness that Enke couldn’t escape from, through therapy or medication, and the endless need to prove himself as Germany’s best goalkeeper. He lost hope that his depression would ever leave him, but was too scared to tell the world and give up his career. Reng very bravely shows how simple and normal these thoughts became; how Enke withdrew into himself, unable to motivate himself to do the most simple things. It’s heart-breaking. You feel like you want to reach out to him, to tell him that football isn’t important. But like his friends and family around him at the time, you can’t.