Book Review: A Life Too Short – The Tragedy of Robert Enke

Book Review: ‘A Life Too Short – The Tragedy of Robert Enke’ by Ronald Reng, on the life of the late German goalkeeper Robert Enke.

The goalkeeper stands with his hands on his hips, an abject sign of loneliness as the scoreboard lights up saying that the one team has gone four nil up. It’s not his team – just moments before, the defense in front of him had seen it fit to ensure that he faced a penalty he couldn’t save.

Robert Enke could only stand and wonder what he did wrong – across the week, another 11 goals would go past him into the back of the net. And by the end of the season, his team would have been relegated and he would have left for greener pastures. Such is life when one is young and discovering the harshness of the world.

Camus, the famous writer and an ex-goalkeeper, once mentioned that the goalkeepers are the outsiders in football. Never involved in the action until the last second, but that last second is critical to the outcome of the game. In a paradoxical way, the goalkeeper is the most important yet most useless person on the football field.

Robert Enke would have agreed with that statement – more with the latter than the former. A journeyman who wanted nothing more than to be loved and respected by the club he was at, but was robbed of achieving glory and feeling at home by a serious illness and bad luck again and again. Ronald Reng, a German sports journalist and one of the few friends Robert made across his brief life, sat down with him once to talk about recording his life for posterity – and his thoughts and Enke’s notebook contribute to form A Life Too Short, highlighting both the good and the bad of Robert Enke’s short but memorable life.

Book Review: 'A Life Too Short - The Tragedy of Robert Enke' by Ronald Reng, on the life of the late German goalkeeper Robert Enke

As always, it starts with that mystical change in career choice. Being the guy who condemned his future club Carl Zeiss to defeat with a hattrick. Enke was a striker – becoming a goalkeeper was due to pure luck as Zeiss’s coach had no idea who to play as goalkeeper so everyone got a chance. And it was Robert Enke who proved to be heads and shoulders over others; from a position of scoring goals, he became the wall that had to stop them.

Luck is always a key factor in any sportsman’s life, and as Enke would have agreed, it both helped and hindered him along his journey to becoming a world-class goalkeeper. But he was never impatient, and after Carl Zeiss handed him over to Monchengladbach, he was content to be the understudy of Uwe Kamps, their number one goalkeeper. When his time came, he performed as well as he could. A chanceless debut in which he got overshadowed by his best friend Marco Villa’s hattrick was followed by terrible defensive mistakes that riddled Enke’s net with goal after goal. And despite superlative performances, relegation followed soon after and Enke left. Not just the club, but the country as he teamed up with Jupp Heynckes, a coach he admired. Club loyalty is something that never stuck with Robert until his later years, but he was adamant of respecting the club and himself at the same time. Leaving Monchengladbach as a young keeper for Benfica was a career decision, but he tried to ensure the team had enough time to find a replacement. Sadly, the coach and supporters didn’t share that insight – and he was subjected as a youngster to cat calls of ‘Traitor! Traitor!’ in his final few games for the club.

Even when he left Benfica after three fruitless and turbulent seasons, he chose to not go to Porto – even though it was managed by one of his favorite managers (Jose Mourinho who had managed him for a brief time at Benfica) – out of respect for club rivalry. Years later, as Hannover 96’s captain, he declined the allure of champions League football with VFB Stuttgart to ensure the team didn’t lose their lynchpin. Though he never lost sight of his own career track – ensuring that he got fair wages and a contract that due to his passing he never saw out.

An understated argument positioned near the middle by a young Timo Hilderbrand was, should a goalkeeper move out of the country early on in their career? While this does have a trace of irony given Hildebrand himself left Germany for Valencia soon after, it is a serious discussion point. Robert had shown serious stage fright both with moving to Benfica and later to Fenerbahce. One wonders if he should’ve stayed home. Anyway, Benfica was his destination and Reng documents that this is where the first symptoms of something serious appeared. No sooner had he arrived, did Enke want to leave. This would not be his last panic attack, something that hampered his career and media image significantly. But his love of Lisbon was permanent, with his retirement plans set in stone in Portugal’s capital.

Not that Benfica was that accommodating. Thinking of great heights with a world class coach, Benfica struggled both financially and on the field – instead of Champions League, they were struggling to stay in the top four of their domestic competition. Luck had played a part here as well, as after Enke’s attacks, the club had recruited Bossio, who performed terribly in a warm up match against Bayern Munich. Not only did that cost him his place in the first term, he was also unceremoniously unpaid for months afterwards. However, it was at that club that Enke first started mentoring another goalkeeper in Jose Moreira.

Enke’s role as a mentor is an interesting one. His relationship with goalkeepers across clubs has proved an interesting insight into the people who never play together on the field, but seek to better themselves through competitive spirit and knowledge transfer from the outside. Early on, when Enke was younger, he incorporated the strengths in Kamps’ technique. When he himself became the top keeper at Benfica, he took Moreira under his wings. They became good friends, trying to teach each other their native languages and finally Moreira succeeded Enke when the latter left the club.

Leaving Benfica and snubbing not only the likes the Porto but also Manchester United, Enke arrived at Barcelona. And again, immediately regretted leaving Portugal. Recognising the club’s legacy and prestige though convinced him to try, and with low competition, Enke was ready to take on the best of the La Liga. That would never happen. Victor Valdes at Barcelona would be a different prospect to the impressionable and eager to learn Moreira. Not only was he a fan of Olivier Kahn, whom Enke disliked, but for all of Van Gaal’s talk of equal treatment, he seemed to favour Valdes again and again in goal – it didn’t help that unlike Enke, Valdes was rebellious and seemed to enjoy crowd support with his Catalan descent. Where Enke got criticised for the smallest mistakes in his opinion, Valdes was given the benefit due to his youth.

But while Valdes was one relationship that never took off (encapsulating Enke’s terrible Barcelona stint), Enke never stopped being a kind and mature mentor to budding goalkeepers. One poignant anecdote tells how Enke called up Sven Ulreich, the then young VFB Stuttgart goalkeeper. Ulreich was criticised by his coach publicly in a show like what Enke himself faced at Barcelona when he finally got a chance against a low-tier club only to concede three goals and face Frank de Boer’s public ire. Here were two people who had never met, and an international keeper telling a nervous youngster that he was doing fine and that he should carry on with his own confidence.

But mentoring goalkeepers was one thing, being compared to them was another. Enke had tried to incorporate the best things he saw in other goalkeepers, but his style was his own. For years he was afraid that because he didn’t follow Oliver Kahn’s style, he was not seriously seen as German national goalkeeper material. And even when he did break free of the shadow, he had to suffer comparisons with the more flamboyant Edwin Van Der Sar and later on, Tim Wiese who had made theatricality a repertoire of the goalkeeper. Robert believed in carving out his own technique from learning and training.

The first attack of depression came in those months following the Novelda fiasco. Robert was to leave goalkeeping altogether, and even his rethink was tested when at Fenerbahce, after one match in which he displayed shocking technique to concede three goals and again after many years, he had to hear the cursing from his own fans while being pelted with lighters and bottle caps. Away from Teresa, from Moreira, from his beloved Lisbon – all Robert could do was write his struggles. That one match destroyed the career he was building. Escaping Istanbul, he found himself unwelcome at Barcelona.

It’s interesting to note that it was never with the ‘big’ clubs that he felt at home. Barcelona was an unmitigated disaster for his career and set him back a lot, while the small clubs like Tenerife and Hannover 96 proved to be blessings as he gave some of his best performances at club level. Expectation was not something Robert Enke really cared about.

Tenerife as mentioned was his salvation. Not only did his loan spell there prove fruitful with a solid run after being inactive for nine months, he and Teresa became parents. Life was good again with their daughter Lara. Enke came face to face with match-fixing as well during this time, and while the season ended on a slightly sour note, it was probably the best time of his life upto that point.

Hannover 96 wanted him, and deciding to go back to his native Germany as a new father, Enke agreed. During this wonderful period, he was called to the national side by Klinsmann for a tour of Asia, but parental duty came first. There would be time later. But with Lara came new problems. Turner syndrome had rendered her frail and after a third successful heart surgery, she ultimately succumbed. The fairy tale of 2006 with Hannover and finishing in the top 10 was over.

In the months to follows, Enke somehow didn’t slip into depression. Reng mentions sometimes it’s hard to find the exact triggers that enable it, and a death would certainly have been a strong contender – but not only did Enke soldier on, he found a way to be positive. Where football and life collided, he stood out. One coach fondly notes how Robert visited some deaf football players and studied their technique before offering to play alongside them – then ensured that they got sponsors for proper kits and games. Lara had been deaf, and Robert could see a little of both himself and his late daughter in them.

The people around Enke also played a prominent part in managing his depression. Especially the role of Teresa Enke, his wife, is essential to note. They married at a young age, but the strong-willed woman forever in love proved to be a capable ally and friend during both the highs and the lows of their life together. Ex-teammate and lifelong friend Marco Villa suffered through injuries and had his own struggles, but no matter how far he was, he and his wife would always be there to ensure Robert and Teresa never felt alone in their joys or sorrows. Jorg Neblung was both a friend and Robert’s agent –  managing to find the delicate balance between professionalism and empathy so many agent-player relationships sometimes lack. They helped him during these troubled times, especially poignant given Robert got the call from Germany. They wanted him in their dugout.

The international stage was competitive – first in the form of Oliver Kahn, and then Jens Lehmann. But Enke’s cool composure and favour with most goalkeeper coaches always helped him gain a slight advantage – when crunch time came to decide the third goalkeeper for the Euros, Enke was easily taken on along with the young Rene Adler and no. 1 Jens Lehmann. If not for his depression, Enke would have enjoyed a substantial amount of time as Germany’s no. 1 after Lehmann’s retirement. The book has an interesting football story in the background of Enke’s own tale – and enthusiasts interested in the first decade of football in the 21st century will be in for an insightful feature. Hannover 96 was turbulent to say the least. After Lara’s death, Stuttgart offered him the reprieve of leaving behind the place, but he committed himself to the club. He dealt with terrible performances and a fallout between the coach and the players responsibly and properly as club captain. Despite playing for a mid-tier club, his place as Germany’s number one was never in doubt.

But an injury served to be an obstacle again. Enke had already been perturbed by Rene Adler being made into a competitor for his place as Germany’s no. 1 by the media, who were starved after the conflict seen in the previous duo of Kahn and Lehmann. It was never the same, despite him coming back as Germany’s and Hannover’s no. 1 goalie – including shining in a match against Schalke 04 with another potential upstart named Neuer in the opposition goal.

He attempted to move forward. Lara’s death was a blow, but he and Teresa went into adoption and found a little sister for Lara, naming her Leila. But just as things were sorting themselves out again, a horror-show against Trier brought back painful memories of Novelda – resulting in him taking anti-depressants. Robert mentions that he always thought whether it was a mistake to suspend his treatment during 2003 and followed Marco’s recovery where there was continuous assessment. Or like Sebatian Diesler, who came out in public with his depression, more people would have understood him if they knew what Robert was going through – though the threat of stigma hovered above him like a black cloud.

Whatever was the case, things took a serious turn. One-day Teresa called Robert and found that, in his own words, ‘he had been driving to look for a place to kill himself’. While he dismissed it as a joke later, Teresa made him promise to never do that (and ensured Hanno Balitsch, Hannover’s goalkeeping coach, kept an eye on him) – a promise he couldn’t honour as only a few months later with him dropping out of both domestic and international matches, he would be rendered unrecognisable by a speeding train.

It’s a tragic story, but as an intelligent person once said, it was never who he was underneath, it was what he did that should define him. Robert Enke was not just a brilliant footballer, but as a person he was kind, strong and loving. He had a life beyond the game, found happiness and sorrow – and it combined with his actions on the field to make his life a rich experience. And even if it did end in tears and violence, what should be remembered is the man he was – not the grave that marks where he lies. This book explores all that beautifully and makes us realise that the man we do not notice for most of the game was one of flesh and blood, with an entire life to him just like the others. And beyond that, Reng ensure this remains a sensitive and insightful prose eulogy to one of the best goalkeepers Germany produced.

Yes, Camus was right. A goalkeeper is an outsider. But then, sometimes he does live within us all – the same struggles of fitting in, of being loved. Enke tried. All his life. And despite his illness, he succeeded in playing at the highest level and being a good human being.

In the end, sometimes that’s all we can aspire for.

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Avishek Chatterjee

A Devil of reddish intent, waiting for a theatre to dream again while he writes and knows things.