Book Review: A Life Too Short – The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng, (translated into English by Shaun Whiteside)
The disastrous performance by Loris Karius for Liverpool in the Champions League Final against Real Madrid is just another reminder of the vulnerable role of the goalkeeper, someone who is always walking a tightrope between would-be hero and scapegoat for any failure. The worst thing is that the goalkeeper himself believes this. No such self-doubt seems to exist with attackers like Cristiano Ronaldo. All the glory is his, any failure is somebody else’s fault – every single time.
With this summer’s World Cup in Russia raising the sport’s profile ever higher, it is worth reflecting on the Winner of the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award because it is probably the most poignant reminder that, for all the general excellence of the modern footballer, it is still a game played by humans, not computer-generated robots. Led by the media, we demand everything from them, conveniently forgetting that they are real people often with brittle egos.
Robert Enke is perhaps the best modern example of the pressure all this puts on a person and his suicide in 2009 rocked the football world. He was a talented, German international goalkeeper who attracted the admiration and interest of both Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho but his increasing anxiety and depression drove him to kill himself aged 32 when a place at the World Cup in South Africa appeared to be beckoning.
A book about the man was inevitable after the sad event but, ironically, the author Ronald Reng had been by chosen by Enke himself years before to pen the goalkeeper’s biography and they had become friends. Therefore he had a large amount of material at his disposal as well as access to those closest to Enke.
This very closeness has both advantages and disadvantages and the book itself is actually something of an oddity. It is well-written by Reng and, presumably, the translation by Shaun Whiteside is good but an added irony lies in the fact that its special interest comes from his ‘life story’ being actually his death story. The reader is aware at all turns that it is about a man whose depressive nature finally drove him to suicide. Therefore, the very detailed accounts of his ups and downs both on and off the football pitch tend to become rather tedious, as if they are helping to skirt around what the book should be centred on. Also, it asks a great deal of the reader’s patience as there is an inclination throughout to try spotting the fault lines in Enke’s life, the things that might have led to his depression. Was it being a temperamental and insecure goalkeeper that drove him over the edge? Was it his poorly daughter’s short life and death? Should he have quit football years before and found another, more stable career? Questions present themselves but are seldom directly addressed as there is always a sense that Reng is putting off as long as possible the build up to the final catastrophe.
The many insights into his character and depression which Reng gives us are gained to a lesser degree from his family and colleagues, to a much greater degree from a few intimates but it is mainly his wife, Teresa, who understandably provides the closest perspective. If the world runs on a belief in luck, as those within the narrative seem to feel, it is hard for people with less talent than he had to see how ‘unlucky’ he was. But happiness with him is always fleeting, pushing back the ever-threatening blackness. A major accomplishment of this book is to show how we should not have envied his life even without that final desperate act.
The story only becomes gripping in the final pages, once it is evident Enke had decided to end it all and had adopted a degree of calm resignation that contrasts strongly with the rising panic of those closest to him. We can only speculate how helpful watching ‘Titanic’ two nights before he died was to his peace of mind and how wise it was for his wife to take him to an exhibition of preserved corpses the day before he stepped in front of an express train. Reng chronicles these but makes no direct link. Enke left a wife, a recently adopted daughter, seven dogs and a bewildered nation as the pressure of performing, and potentially making mistakes, in front of a global audience became too terrible for him to contemplate any more.
The beautiful game, we remember, is not played by fantasy footballers but by people.