Tackling the unspoken issue of depression in football

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I last saw my mate Ronnie, a German writer who mainly covers football for respected newspapers and magazines in his own country, at the Barcelona v Real Madrid game in December 2009.

He wrote a great book about Barnsley’s German goalkeeper Lars Leese, who came to Oakwell as a reserve in 1998 having played for Bayer Leverkusen’s third team. Within months he was keeping a clean sheet at Anfield as Barnsley won 1-0.

Ronnie has lived in Barcelona for a decade and became good friends with Barça’s German goalkeeper Robert Enke when he played at Camp Nou. Ronnie was a goalkeeper himself so it was clear why he and Enke got on well, even though Enke’s time in Catalonia was a deeply unhappy episode in his life.

He later described being a goalkeeper at Barca as “the most difficult goalkeeping position in Europe.”

He left for a loan spell in Turkey which was even more difficult and his depression began to worsen.

Ronnie told me for years that I should interview Enke and I always said, “When I’m next in Germany.” When Manchester United drew Wolfsburg last season, Ronnie fixed it for me to go and see Enke in Hanover. The interview would be for FourFourTwo and all the travel and hotels were booked and paid for.

A few weeks before the interview, Ronnie called Enke at lunch to confirm everything was fixed with “the English journalist”. It was. Three hours later Enke took his own life after jumping in front of an express train. He’d had a history of depression, which had been re-triggered with the death of his two-year-old daughter in 2006 from a heart defect. Soon after, he successfully adopted another little girl who gave him and his wife great joy.

Ronnie speaks at the launch of his book

I didn’t know Enke, who was 32 when he died, but paid my respects at his club, spoke to some of his teammates and offered condolences to Ronnie, who’d lost a good friend. There was an outpouring of grief in Germany. He was the Germany national team ’keeper and had got his career together again.

Soon after the funeral and the subsequent memorial which was attended by 40,000 people in Hanover and televised live on one of Germany’s main channels, Enke’s widow and friends asked Ronnie to write a book about her husband’s life and the wider issue of depression in professional sportsmen.

Ronnie set to work…and I didn’t see him for a year. None of the journalists did. He travelled Europe speaking to former team mates of Enke. He spent six days with one, a former Bundesliga star who wanted to escape the pressure and play where nobody knew him. So he ended up in Italy’s third division, where people soon found out who he was.

And there was me thinking a four hour interview – the type I do for my Manchester United decade books - was about as in-depth as you could get.

Ronnie spoke to some big names. A request to interview Enke’s former team mate Victor Valdes at Barca was initially turned down, not by the player it must be stated. It was then pointed out that Valdes would be the only person not to agree to an interview as part of the book. Word soon came back that Valdes would see Ronnie.

They spoke for three hours, far, far longer than either expected. The last hour consisted of Valdes asking Ronnie about Enke’s depression. 

The book was published last month and became an instant best-seller in Germany, with over 150,000 copies being sold in the first month. No British sports book has come close to that figure this year.

Most of the monies will go to the Enke family and there are plans for it to be translated into English. Hopefully soon, and it is sure to make an important contribution to publicizing this still little understood issue.