November 10th seemed just like another day in the soccer calendar but the date marked the 5th anniversary of the death of Robert Enke. The former German international, who was tipped to be his country’s No. 1 at the World Cup in South Africa, took his own life at the age of 32.
Enke had battled depression, but unfortunately felt that he only had one option open to him. Roland Reng’s biography of the goalkeeper A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke portrays Enke’s troubles sensitively and movingly. From the book Enke appeared to be a kind-hearted, thoughtful man who struggled with all too common yet commonly misunderstood demons.
My overriding feeling when reading the biography was the vain hope that the book wouldn’t end. It was the realization that with each turn of the page Enke’s story was just that little bit closer to its tragic conclusion. If you haven’t read this award winning book already, I would urge you to do so.
But how far has soccer come since Enke’s tragic passing? The game had its warning signs in the form of Sebastian Deisler who gave up the game because of depression. There was sympathy for Ralf Rangnick who stepped down as coach of Schalke due to exhaustion syndrome in 2011.
Chillingly, the specter of suicide in soccer reared its head once again in Germany earlier this year. Andreas Biermann, 33, took his own life last July. Shortly, after Enke passed Biermann announced that he too was suffering from depression. Unfortunately for Biermann it appeared that revealing his condition publicly only had an adverse effect on his football career. St. Pauli whom Biermann was playing for at the time chose not to renew his contract and no other club opted to recruit him. He retired from professional football at the age of 29. In an interview with German magazine Stern Biermann had a warning for players who were battling similar problems:
“If any footballers out there are suffering from depression I’ll advise them to keep it for themselves.”
Depression and its potentially tragic consequences is not confined to the German game. It is inconceivable that there are not other professional players suffering from the similar issues. According to the World Health Organization one in every 15 people within Europe suffers from major depression every year. FIFpro conducted their own study and found that one in four footballers suffer from depression.
When Stan Collymore publicly declared that he was suffering from depression he did not receive any understanding support. His manager at the time John Gregory seemed to have no idea as how to deal with Collymore’s condition with any sensitivity. Things have moved on since then but not to the degree that it should.
The game in the United Kingdom has seen its share of tragedy too. Justin Fashanu is perhaps the most infamous case amongst them all. Fashanu had to deal with the pressure of being first openly gay footballer in the British game. With no support structure or figure heads to support him Fashanu was effectively left to fend for himself to a tragic end.
More recently Gary Speed was suspected to have committed suicide. His sister Lesley spoke about her brother’s depression in a BBC documentary Football’s Suicide Secrets she revealed that trust or lack thereof was a key reason as to why the latter didn’t choose to reveal his battle with anyone:
“Who could he trust? What if it got out? It was seen as weak. Depression wasn’t really talked about in our family, it was something that you didn’t have. Pull yourself together is the common thing that people say to you. You get treated if you are suffering from an illness, but with depression people tend to withdraw and you don’t know; you don’t have any idea. Maybe he thought he had to put on this persona, and hide the way he was feeling.”
In the wake of Speed’s death, a number of professional footballers contacted the Sporting Chance clinic to seek treatment for depression.
Despite this there seems to have been little done in the field of football. For all intensive purposes there’s still a sense that displaying vulnerability equals showing weakness. The demands on footballers (and professional athletes) are huge whether they’re right at the elite level or at the lower end of the game. Sometimes the demands are just plain unforgiving.
Enke’s former coach at Hannover Andreas Bergmann summed it up to Bild stating:
“One has to appear strong to the outside world, one has to function, one has to prevail and to fulfil expectations. Many (players) have to act that part and therefore they are stuck in a constant process of denial. Their quality of life and their energy levels suffer as a result, and therefore also their performances suffer as well. For the most part it burns them out, that they can’t be themselves. Nevertheless, illness, weaknesses and fears are part of who we are.”
Perhaps Lesley Speed identified the issue correctly. Football comes together when dealing with loss or physical illness. The outpouring of sympathy for Billy Sharp after the loss of his two-day old son by all football fans displayed how fans can come together. Similarly, Stiliyan Petrov and Jonas Gutierrez’s battle found widespread public support when they revealed their battles against leukemia and testicular cancer respectively.
There still appears to be a gap in accepting conditions such as depression or anxiety as genuine problems. There still appears to be a fear that a public admission of depression or anxiety will only lead to a backlash rather than sympathy. Soccer isn’t the only sport that is still coming to grips with mental illness but it hasn’t exactly led the way either.
It takes a lot of strength for a person to admit they’re suffering from depression or anxiety. That admission in all quarters should be met with support.
More and more ex-footballers such as Darren Eadie to former Inter Milan player Martin Bengtsson have been brave enough to talk about their experiences though. More examples need to be aired to the football community so that people will come to understand and accept that these conditions are just as debilitating and serious as any physical injury.
Maybe soccer fans, myself included, can remind themselves that players are only human and can be just as fragile and vulnerable as the rest of us.