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Robert Engke's suicide

Thomas Klein / phJuly 5, 2013

He was just 32 years of age, and a place as Germany's No.1 goalkeeper was within his grasp. But on November 10, 2009, Robert Enke - suffering from depression - took his own life.

candles surrounding a foto of Robert Enke - a show of mourning Foto: Daniel Reinhardt dpa/lni
Image: picture alliance / dpa

The small, dim room in the office of a large telecommunications firm in Bonn was set to hold the pre-match press conference ahead of the encounter between Germany and Chile. 

The game had been canceled, but the journalists came anyway.  They sat silently, staring at a large, black video screen.

A frightening silence had fallen over the room where, in a few minutes, the wife of Robert Enke, Teresa, was set to address the press conference.

Usually chatty, the reporters were still in shock at what had happened just a day earlier at a railway crossing near Hanover - Robert Enke had taken his own life.

"He lacked the drive"

Shortly after 1pm, Teresa Enke addressed the cameras.  In a thin, sometimes shaky voice, she spoke about the severe depression her husband had suffered, his suicide and the person Robert Enke was.

Friendly, courteous and self-critical in interviews - that was the goalkeeper as the public knew him.

He wife knew the other side; a sick, depressed man.

 "When he was acutely depressed, it was difficult. It was clear that he lacked the drive and the hope for a speedy recovery," she said.

Teresa Enke revealed a fear of the public and their dealing with the taboo subject of "depression" , which meant that Robert Enke in the end would refuse to accept help - even from his wife.

"The struggle was also in not revealing the whole thing to the public. That was his wish, because he was afraid of losing his career," she said.

Three years earlier, the Enkes had suffered their first fateful stroke; the death of daughter Lara.

She had been born with a serious heart defect and was only two years old when she died.

Robert Enke in action(Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Robert Enke was the German national team's number on goalkeeperImage: Getty Images

"Our daughter was in the hospital for almost a year, of which half was in the Intensive Care Unit. This changes your perspective. I've learned where my priorities lie," Robert Enke said at the time.

However, with the adoption of daughter Leila in May 2009, Enke found new hope. "We thought that love would be enough," said Teresa Enke.

In the end, however, it was not.

"He has made us speechless"

The suicide of the Hanover goalkeeper triggered a wave of sympathy. Shortly after his suicide, Enke's colleagues in the Germany national team drafted a letter: "Your death for us is still omnipresent. It has made us all speechless, stunned, helpless. We were paralysed when we got the unbearable news. We are not able to put our grief into words."

Five days after his death, a moving memorial service was held in the stadium of Hanover.

The sympathy was overwhelming - 35,000 people attended.

Alongside national team coach Joachim Löw were representatives of numerous football associations, foreign clubs and players.

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former Prime Minister of Lower Saxony Christian Wulff and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere were also present.  It was the largest funeral in the history of German sport.

Appeals for more compassion

German Football Federation President Theo Zwanziger appealed in his speech for more compassion: "… Think not only of the appearance. Think also of what is inside the people, of doubt and weakness. Football is not everything" he said, calling for fair play and respect in the world of sports.

Everyone agreed; in elite sport, something had to change.

Markus Miller, second goalkeeper of Hanover spoke in 2011 of "mental exhaustion" and took a three-month sabbatical.

After he returned to the goal, he said it was the best decision he had made in his life.

But then there was Andreas Biermann. The former St. Pauli defender also made his illness public, and his expiring contract was subsequently not renewed.

"I would not recommend a depressed professional make his illness public," Biermann said later.

Teresa Enke and the Robert Enke Foundation, among others,  have been fighting for more openness in dealing with depression in the professional sporting world.

But German commentators agree that football is and will remain a competitive sport, where the strongest wins and there is little room for weakness.