Speaking to Robert Enke

Andy Mitten on the late Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke, who was due to be interviewed for FourFourTwo after Wolfsburg vs Manchester United next month...

I’ve just arrived at Camp Nou for a game whose importance is reflected by the size of the crowd.

It’s 10pm and maybe 20,000 are inside the ground for a cup game against third-level Cultural Leonesa; Barça are already 2-0 up from the first leg.

I don’t have to file any copy tonight, so I was going to watch some of the emerging Barça stars closely.

Then I switch on my computer in the press box and read that the German goalkeeper Robert Enke has died.

I was going to interview Enke in Hanover on December 9, the morning after Wolfsburg vs Manchester United.

My mate, the German writer Ronald Reng, is a good friend of Enke and has spoken exceptionally well of him for years.

With United playing close by, Reng fixed it up for me to interview Enke for FourFourTwo. Only this morning, he emailed to say that he’d just spoken to Enke’s wife.

Reng recently emailed me the following piece to ask if I could read through it.

While his English is very good, writing in another language isn’t easy and he wanted me to give it the once-over.

This is a far better synopsis of Enke than anything I could write. I’ll leave it how it was sent.

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Interview with Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke, who had to overcome unemployment and the death of his daughter to become Germany’s No.1.By Ronald Reng

At the end of our interview, Robert Enke offers to drive me down to the commuter train station at Neustadt.

He knows the timetable by heart, as he regularly takes the local train from the small village where he lives to Hanover, even now that he is Germany’s No.1 goalkeeper. “The connections are good and fast”, he simply states.

If anyone needed any proof that Enke – who will play for Germany in the World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan this Wednesday – is special, it would be the image of one of the country’s brightest stars sitting between the locals on a commuter train.

But of his whole life is proof that he is in many ways a unique goalkeeper.

Having captained Benfica at 23, he turned down offers from Manchester United and Roma to join FC Barcelona.

He didn't make it there and when Barça sent him to Istanbul two years later, he refused to play for Fenerbahce.

“I just felt totally out of place in Turkey with the exaggerated passion of the fans and the club," he says. "I felt absolutely lonely and deeply sad.”

Instead, he chose to be unemployed.

After half a year out of work, he was only offered a job in Spain’s Second Division, at Tenerife.

That’s the way many prosperous talents disappear – into mediocrity. But in no man’s land, Enke’s career restarted.

From Tenerife he worked his way up again. At Hanover, forever a midtable Bundesliga club, he managed at the late age of 31 to become the No.1 of three-times World Cup winners Germany.

“I suppose it has to be my destiny that everything in my career has to be weird,” he says. “Just sometimes, I wished it would have been a tiny bit easier.”

When he says that, while driving me to the station, I instinctively look down to the car keys in the ignition. On the key-ring fob there is a picture of his daughter Lara.

She was born with a cardiac defect. She spent her first six months in intensive care.

Enke lived between the training pitch and the hospital. There are images you do not forget: “Lara, my wife and I sitting in the deserted hospital canteen on Christmas Eve, eating salmon with potatoes.”

On three occasions, Lara survived life-threatening surgery. On September 17 2006, just after her second birthday, she died after what should have been straightforward ear surgery.

He has never spoken publicly about her death, but he says he likes to talk about her with friends, with people who got to know her.

“Remember the photos of her we looked at yesterday? In every second picture, she was smiling. She was such a happy and brave girl.”

She has taught him something he will not forget: “I don’t want to minimise football; the sport is very important to me and I am very ambitious. But in the end, it's always just football.

Many fans and media in Germany say he is too polite, too softly-spoken. What they really mean is that he lacks character. They confuse a big mouth with charisma.

Germany has always regarded itself as the land of goalkeepers; since the 1970s and the great Sepp Maier, the national team has always been protected by world-class, strong-minded, not to say crazy goalkeepers.

There were the 1980s with Rambo in the cinema and Harald Schumacher in the Germany goal, who kept on chewing his chewing-gum after he kung-fu kicked France’s Battiston half to death in the World Cup semi-final 1982.

Then came the 1990s with Oliver 'Gorilla' Kahn and finally a new century with 'Mad Jens' Lehmann.

In front of this gallery of ancestral portraits now stands Robert Enke. He is as good as any German goalkeeper has ever been, with lightning reflexes and a strong control of the penalty area. He just refuses to give up his sensibility.

“I will never try to psych out or speak badly about one of my rivals for the No.1 spot. I know what respect is.”

[TEXT ENDS]

Robert Enke, rest in peace.

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