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Top goalkeeper's suicide exposes lonely, complex world of players with problems

Robert Enke's suicide has prompted many people to ask whether more could have been done to help. But the complex nature of the soccer community, and the problems that go with it, make finding answers much more difficult.

German soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke

Enke hid his depression despite help being at hand

Attempts to understand what led German goalkeeper Robert Enke to take his own life may never get to the core of the torment he was suffering. Some would even argue that it’s better not to try - and let the Hanover soccer star rest in peace.

It has become clear that Enke's psyche was damaged by intense personal tragedy, with the death of his baby daughter from a congenital heart problem three years ago, and that he had been battling depression for years, but what was truly going on inside his head will never be revealed.

However, a tragic loss like this can also prompt some potentially constructive questions about whether he - or others who share his plight - have had enough access to help and support within the sport's structure.

Many sports psychologists will say, though, that Enke's death must be seen in the wider context of suicide. While Enke worked in an arena with its own particular stresses and strains, suicide is the leading cause of death among young men.

Some argue that instead of focusing on the pressures that soccer may have heaped onto him, it might be worth noting that Enke actually had better access to support, community, and care – through his teammates, club and international federation – than many other sufferers of depression could ever hope to have.

But Peter Kay, the CEO of Sporting Chance, a UK-based independent clinic for athletes with addictions and psychological problems, believes that while clubs have made progress in providing support in recent years, fear of exposure keeps many players from talking about their problems.

Too tough to open up

German national soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke addressing the media during a news conference in Leipzig, eastern Germany.

Enke feared revealing the depth of his depression could damage his career

"There has been a real change in clubs over the last five years where the player has started to be seen more as a human being with human problems," Kay told Deutsche Welle. "As a result, the clubs have brought in their own psychologists. But what the players are willing to share is limited by the fear that the psychologists are going to report back to the manager; they fear that their condition will be made known to the club. One player who recently came to Sporting Chance, with the knowledge of his club, had his contract torn up by the manager who said he was a weak link and that he didn’t want that in the club. This is the fear the players have."

While senseless and tragic to all, Enke's death may also confuse many. Some outside the world of soccer will question how anyone with the adoration of thousands, the financial security the game provides and the self-worth that comes from reaching the pinnacle of any sport, could ever become depressed.

For the fans who fill the world’s stadia, those players on the pitch in front of them are living the dream. However, those same factors can also contribute to a player's fragile state of mind.

"Players live in a total fantasy world, cocooned by the clubs from reality," Kay said. "While the clubs and soccer in general are not to blame, they are culpable. From the age of eight and nine in some cases, young players are given everything which the club hopes will make them into a star. There are few top players who can have a normal life – they're celebrities now – and they have never had to live in the real world. What is hard is when they cannot equate their image in a magazine with how they truly feel inside. They see this image of this star but inside they have self-doubts and low self-esteem. This can be very damaging."

Insecurity over first team chances, career

German soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke reacting at the end of the friendly soccer match between Germany and Belgium, in Nuremberg, southern Germany.

Enke, once tipped to be Germany's no.1, had lost his secure grip on that place through illness

Sport psychologists are well aware of the particular pressures that athletes have to contend with. Enke's career was dominated by the extreme highs and lows that come with every life spent in the sporting arena. He had to deal with the constant threat of injury, the pressure to perform, and – as he publicly admitted – the threat of being replaced by a younger, better player. Facing these pressures in a career that could so easily end in a split-second collision, Enke found out that the dream was always perilously close to turning into a nightmare.

"Top players live with the constant fear of being dropped or replaced," said Kay. "They get their self-esteem from playing in the first team, from scoring goals or contributing to the team's success. You take that away from them and the problems multiply. If a player of 32- or 33-years of age is struggling to keep his emotions and problems in check while also worrying about his career, the pressure can be overwhelming."

Stigma in macho world of soccer

Hanover players Morten Jensen, Robert Enke and Hanno Balitsch

Teammates aren't always mates

Enke feared that he could eventually be usurped as a goalkeeper but also that any revelation of his depression could lead to his adopted daughter Leila being removed from his care. While support structures may have been there for him, it is likely that he felt that he couldn't admit that something was wrong with him for fear of what might happen.

"There's a terrific stigma in soccer, as in society, that if you have mental health issues or suffer from depression, then you’re seen as weak," said Kay. "This is exacerbated in the macho world of soccer which, contrary to popular opinion, is a very lonely and insular place. These players don't all socialize together; they don't have dinner together every night, they're not all pals, it's not all tight-knit at the clubs. It's a highly competitive world where it's every man for himself. Players won't share problems because they fear they will be judged and that their 'weakness' will be used against them. So, as is the nature of depression, players will keep their feelings inside and will tell themselves they'll get through it. Often they won't, not without help."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Matt Hermann

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