I have just finished A Life Too Short, Ronald Reng’s biography of Robert Enke, the German international goalkeeper who stunned the world of football by committing suicide in 2009, aged 32. It is the best book I have read all year – movingly written, with the pacing of a novel, a powerful, claustrophobic insight into the mind of a depressive.
It is, so to speak, a book of two halves, punctuated by Enke’s two major spells of depression. The first came when he was 25, following an unsuccessful move to Barcelona, and leading to the nadir of his career – unemployment, having walked out of the Turkish club Fenerbahce after just a single game. The first half of the book deals with the rise and fall of Enke’s career to this point. The second, describes his recovery, both personally and professionally – by 2009, aged 32, he had been recognised as the best goalkeeper in the German league and was playing for the national team – before his sudden and terminal decline into depression.
The first half is much easier to make sense of, and to take lessons from. It should give us pause, certainly when we think about the culture of football, but holds more general insights for all forms of management. The first point to emerge is a welcome reminder that footballers are human beings, and not the chess pieces they appear in so many discussions. Enke’s story is a stark illustration of the demands placed upon many footballers – as a 22 year old from a modest background he was expected to uproot his life and move to Portugal, a country he did not know or speak the language. Enke cannot have been the first person to suffer a panic attack under such circumstances.
Robert Enke was a sensitive, self-doubting person, who was happiest and most effective when he felt valued and supported. His initial crisis arose because of the macho aggression and competitive culture he encountered at too many clubs. It is notable that he succeeded at Benfica, where he forged a close bond with the substitute goalkeeper, Moraes, largely because he was too junior to be a genuine rival for his place in the team. By contrast, at Barcelona, his manager Louis van Gaal claimed not to know or care who he was and placed him in pitched battle against two other goalkeepers – Victor Valdes and Roberto Bonano.
The key lesson is that different people respond in different ways to different management styles and team ethos – some are motivated by fear, but for others fear can be crippling. It is unsurprising that van Gaal does not come out well from the book, given his notoriously rigid and authoritarian approach (which is not to say he is at all culpable for Enke’s troubles – just that the personality clash was inevitable).
In particular, it appears that too many people in the game take football too seriously – pressure is the enemy of joy. In this context, it is fascinating to learn about the role of Pep Guardiola – perhaps the best manager of our time, in calming Victor Valdes down on taking over Barcelona:
“Victor, said Guardiola, if you go on like this, eventually your career will be over and you won’t have enjoyed this wonderful job for a single day because you’re always tense, because success is the only thing you want.”
Without picking on van Gaal, because he certainly isn’t alone in this, it’s hard to imagine him saying anything similar.
Enke’s story also emphasises the importance of empathy. It’s long struck me that many managers don’t appreciate the power and responsibility they have over their charges. A stray word can stress people out and give them sleepless nights, while a bit of encouragement can give them incredible fortitude. This shows how important thoughtfulness is. Enke led by example – seeing a young unknown goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, who played for a different team, Stuttgart, publicly criticised by his coach incensed Enke. Enke, at this point a Bundesliga star, got hold of Ulreich’s phone number from his glove manufacturer and called him up, analysed his mistakes and reassured him that he had overcome similar difficulties – an unprecedented move. “’When I hung up’, says Sven Ulreich, ‘I had goosebumps’”.
But the second half of the book undermines such easy conclusions. Without warning, depression hit Enke at the peak of his career, and paralysed him. He was barely able to get out of bed, let alone train or play. Unlike his first bout, there was no obvious cause – both professionally and personally he seemed to be thriving. The book demonstrates the suddenness of his decline – as the reader you know how the story will end, but barely 50 pages and a couple of months from the end there is nothing in the story to suggest its grim destination. It is truly terrifying, because it is seemingly so random. And if it is random, does that mean that the lessons of the first half are illusory? Does depression just strike where it’s going to strike, or are there things we can do to prevent it developing? A Life Too Short is a troubling book, but all the more powerful for it.