Two years later – What can we learn from Robert Enke’s tragic death?

Depression and burnout syndrome have been widely covered by the German and international sports media given recent events. But what will happen after yesterday’s papers have been tossed by their readers?  Will the Bundesliga move on as it has done in the past or is the time ripe for a new approach?

Do you remember what you were doing on the evening on November 10th in 2009? I do, I had just finished producing a radio show for the college radio station I worked for when I opened my laptop to find out if anything noteworthy had happened. And there it was, Robert Enke had commited suicide. Enke, a calm, quiet, down to earth guy who was probably the best keeper Hannover 96 had guarding their goal in the club’s history was no longer amongst us. The day-to-day business of football had stopped for just one moment, and the entire nation of Germany and many football and sports fans all around the world took a moment to reflect on why this had happened.

The national team cancelled their upcoming friendly against Chile, and Oliver Bierhoff captured the mood of football fans all around Germany during the DFB’s press conference the following day, when he told the press through tears that ”playing a football match wasn’t an option for the team and the staff of the national team, because of the way they felt after the news had hit them”.

More and more details emerged almost on an hourly basis as the 24 hours news networks did their best to get their ratings up, and soon it had become abundantly clear that Robert Enke was in fact suffering from depression for many years of his adult life.

Sebastian Deisler was at one point regarded to be one of the greatest coming out of Germany.

Thoughts of Sebastian Deisler were quick to enter many fans mind. The once promising midfielder had ended his career at an early stage, because he thought that all things considering this was the best thing for his mental health. Deisler was the first German footballer who admitted that he was suffering from depression.

Theo Zwanziger gave a moving speech at Enke’s funeral, saying that ”Football can’t be everything. Football is not supposed to be everything.”, demanding a more courageous approach when handling these issues.

The Bundesliga moving on

However, German football and the Bundesliga did return to normal after a while. Hannover honored their fallen keeper with a special tribute on their kit for the rest of the season.

Hannover’s sporting director Jörg Schmadkte said one year after Enke’s suicide:

”We are asking ourselves how we can help our young players in the best possible manner. The day-to-day business of football has moved on as if nothing had happened. That is a bitter realization.”

The debate around these issues that could have and should have followed after Enke’s death did only unfold on a rather small-scale. St. Pauli player Andreas Biermann openly admitted that he was receiving treatment in a clinic for his depression 10 days after Enke had committed suicide. This story was reported, but quickly forgotten.

Andreas Biermann(right hand side) chasing the ball in his playing days.

There wasn’t any outcry when St. Pauli simply chose to let Biermann’s contract run out after he had made a return to their squad only 7 months after Biermann had sought treatment. Nobody asked why a defender who before his admission was considered to be good enough for a 2. Bundesliga team seemingly didn’t have a chance in hell of getting a new contract in the 2. Bundesliga or the tier below.

Biermann himself said in an interview with the German magazine Stern that footballers who were suffering from depression should stay in the closet if they want to continue their career. The former St. Pauli, Hertha and Union Berlin man is now playing for the seventh tier side FC Spandau 06, a team people outside of Berlin probably haven’t even heard about (most people from Berlin haven’t probably heard about it).

The new wave

Burnout syndrome and depression are again amongst the talking points of the nightly news this season, largely due to the fact that both Hannover keeper Markus Miller and then Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick both openly admitted they were seeking treatment for this condition. Energie Cottbus player Martin Fenin admitted in a press release that he was seeking treatment to overcome his depression.

All three individuals have been brave in coming forward, informing the public about their situation. The reaction from fans and the media has been somewhat promising. Robert Enke’s suicide had a profound effect on how Germans and football fans talk and think about these issues, and the public has become more sensitive towards these issues.

More common than you might have thought

What these three individuals have proven is that mental illnesses is not specific to any group or class. In a report from 2007 The World Health Organization writes: ”Depression is an important global public health problem due to both its relatively high lifetime prevalence and the significant disability that it causes. In 2002, depression accounted for 4.5% of the worldwide total burden of disease (in terms of disability-adjusted life years). It is also responsible for the greatest proportion of burden attributable to non-fatal health outcomes, accounting for almost 12% of total years lived with disability worldwide. Without treatment, depression has the tendency to assume a chronic course, to recur, and to be associated with increasing disability over time.”

The organization says on its internet site that the staggering amount of 1 out of 4 people develop a mental disorder at one point of their lives. Depression ranks higher than any other mental disorder, accounting for 1/3 of the mental disorders people suffer from. Considering how widely spread depression and other psychological illnesses are, one might actually think that the scope of the problem within the world of football and society as a whole is larger than we think.

Most societies have found it difficult to find out how they should deal with illnesses of the mind. Talking about, trying to understand them and finding solutions for the people who suffer from them have been a neglected area to say the least.

Questions in need of answering

The German sports portal wrote that ”talking about depressions in the world of football has become safe with the lessons learned from Robert Enke’s suicide” when they reported on Martin Fenin’s press release. Has it really?

Footballers have to commit themselves to the sport from an early age these days. Players like Fabian Boll who have a job on the side and an education are a very rare exception these days. Many footballers have nowhere else they can go after their career is over. The increase of wages in the last few decades have made it possible to live of ones savings after career end, but what happens to the players who have to end their career early? What happens to players like Biermann who weren’t given a second chance after he informed the public about his condition?

Isn’t it a moral obligation of a club to take care of their players when they are at their most vulnerable? Sure, giving a player loads of money and running the risk of losing him mid-season due to the fact that his illness has returned might play a considerable role. However, one side of the problem can be negated by giving a player a contract based on performance.


As Biermann’s example portrays, the DFB and the professional football teams failed to find a solution for a decent player to return to professional football. Football clubs ask these days a lot of their players from an early age. Most players who want to make it to the pros don’t have an education to fall back on when things don’t work out. If those players don’t find an employer they have few things they can turn to.

Energie Cottbus and Hannover 96 have now the chance to show that players can be treated in a different manner than Biermann was upon his return to St. Pauli. Ralf Rangnick is still amongst the finest coaches Germany has on offer. It would say a lot of the Bundesliga teams attitude towards this issue if nobody would try to hire him after he returns from treatment.

What the past few months have shown is that the issue of mental health in professional football will stay with us for a long time to come. Now is a time as good as any to talk about the issues facing the players, coaches and teams who’ll have to live with the issue, and find solutions for the problems that weren’t resolved in the not too distant past.

Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 30-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball and on the @AufstiegPod.


  1. It may be strange for a lot of you, duly so, but people need to understand it is really a task of the utmost difficulty for certain individuals to express their inner feelings.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Thats one thing Bayern deserve a lot of credit in, their treatment of players who are having a hard time. As they have throughout the time Uli was in charge, hey’re doing a great job supporting Breno in all possibilities now.

  3. That’s great initiative by the professors to do that. Never really experienced anything like that at the universities here in the states, even after all the school shootings.

    Hard not to still be emotional about this but this can serve as a significant learning lesson for everyone involved in professional sports. At the end of the day, players are human beings vulnerable and frail to the same tensions and cracks as everyone else and need to be reacted to just the same.

  4. Fantastic piece Niklas.

    I think the layman just assumes that people who play professional sports really have their lives set out for them but, as you’ve pointed out, often times this isn’t the case. I don’t have a personal connection to Enke or the other footballing personalities mentioned in this story but there is a part of me that feels such great sadness when I read about them.

    People, footballers included, shouldn’t be afraid to tell people that there is something wrong. Telling someone about a broken ankle should not be easier than telling someone about depression, but sadly that is the case. Hopefully with the Enke book and the recent revelations from people like Rangnick, Fenin, Biermann, and Miller the culture of secrecy towards mental illness in sport can change.

  5. a similar situation is experienced at Bayern with Breno Borges.

    Young, talented, Brazilian, thought to be the next great Brazilian CB, highly touted, was brought to Munich, often injured, and when he played seemed to be inconsistent in showing his potential.

    Bayern MUST at all costs try to resuscitate his career. This is a season to do it: the DFB Pokal is there, and for all intents and purposes, Breno’s career should be saved.

  6. Thank you for the article. I live in Hanover and witnessed the city’s reaction to his death. It was a collective trauma. On the following day, our university courses were spent to talk about the issue of depression and suicide. For the next week, you could feel the sadness everywhere across the city.

    I am convinced that depression is an important issue, especially in an environment that produces so much pressure on the players and on the coaches. Oliver Kahn once said you have to be very strong to admit your weaknesses. I think this is especially true for footballers who are under constant surveillance by the public. For the future I hope that teams and especially the fans try to support the player’s in need of treatment.

    I also want to advertise Ronald Reng’s Enke biography. It really is a great book that every football-fan should read.

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