I have spent the best part of whatever little free time I have had over the last few months to brush up on my sporting literature. Being in London for nearly two months this summer provided me with the otherwise elusive ability of being able to order things on Amazon. Such First World pleasures remain beyond the scope of my Third World residence and thus, suffice to say, when given the opportunity I did what any self-respecting human being would do — I pigged out.
Any and all free time was spent discovering every possible use of Amazon’s all-purpose search function. Names were dug up from the depths of memory, and glossary’s were trolled in search for references to excitable yet obscure sports books I had committed to read.
What this meant was that by the time my long trip came to an end, I had managed to do exactly what I had feared – blow past the meagre weight limit that my pitiful economy class flight back to home would allow. Books are legal tender on flights, I had learned. But that’s only true up to three (you have been warned). Carry more than that, and it goes into luggage as deadweight. The hardbacks hurt the most.
I had collated a fine collection in two months. And I had no intention of letting any of these fantastic books get by unread. And so I embarked upon a crusade as mighty as the Christians. The goal? Read as many books as I could before I was scheduled to leave. To facilitate matters I even took the trouble to shift my flight home back by a couple of days. Whatever you do, don’t tell my boss.
There was a medley to choose from. I felt like a fat kid in a Michelin starred buffet and wasted no time in digging in, indulging the length and breadth of my tastes. I started with David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, a fine specimen that traces the history of Dutch football from the halcyon days of the 60s, to the heights of the 70s and the vicious karate kicks of the noughties. There was also John Foot’s brilliant Calcio, an encyclopaedic look into the history of Italian football, a book as good as any if you want to know the stories behind the Azzuri’s greatest successes. And then there was also Graham Hunter’s contemporary Barcelona: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, an excellent book tempered only a bit by the author’s slightly obvious affinity for the subject he was writing on. There were also autobiographies, Luca Ciaoli’s Messi, in particular a series of insightful and exceptional testimonies that chart the rise of perhaps the greatest modern footballer. Before you ask, Ciaoli has written a similar one on Cristiano Ronaldo.
There were other sport books too, cricket, my other great love, also indulged heavily as were biographies on Oscar Pistorius and Usain Bolt and Rafael Nadal. All of these books are superb, inspiring stories, all are wonderfully coined sport books, written with either a comely turn of phrase or precise and encyclopaedic background. I recommend them all heartily. There is more serene than curling up with one of these reads under the blanket in a cold winter morning.
But sometimes recommendations aren’t enough. Sometimes, taking the proverbial horse to the proverbial water trough just does not yield the necessary results; sometimes you just have to push the damn horse in. And today I want to push you all in. Because I urge you, no I plead with you, if there is one book you will read this fall, make it Ronald Reng’s stunningly profound biography of Robert Enke.
Titled A Life too Short, Reng’s book traces the life of his friend Robert Enke who seared a path across the who’s who of the footballing world and sped ever faster towards an untimely and tragic death at the age of just 32. He left behind his wife, the stoic Teresa Enke and their adopted daughter Leila.
Enke’s story is about sport. It charts the rise and fall of a sublime talent from his modest beginnings at Carl Zeiss Jena to the heady and exotic surroundings of Barcelona. There are appearances from head-spinning and internationally acclaimed football men — from the likes of the animated Victor Valdes and Louis van Gaal, from Jupp Heynckes to Jose Mourinho from Rainer Bonhof to Christoph Daum and even from his friend and long-time confidant Marco Villa. Sport is cruel, oh so cruel, and nowhere is it better illustrated than in Reng’s tear-jerking prose.
But at its heart, A Life Too Short is also a story of love and of despair told with almost brutal and antiseptic honesty. Reng does not aim to judge or draw opinions; he does what every writer worth his salt should do – he just tells the story. And in Enke’s case, the truth is almost always more momentous than fiction.
Forget football, forget sport. Reng’s book is about a young man chased by the Black Dog and, in a society where men are forced to meet certain standards or told to just ‘man up,’ it is a timely reminder of our own humanity.
And perhaps this is what makes Reng’s book a masterpiece.
It is not just poignant, powerful and insightful but it is also a mirror which we can all look into to re-evaluate the ridiculous standards that we have set for ourselves; not just in terms of sports but in all other mediums of life.
In truth, Enke’s story should be less about the fantastic goalkeeper with lightning reflexes and more about that young boy who took the train to the last stop and waited six hours perched on a railway bench to meet the woman he would later marry. It should be about the man who broke down crying in the pavement after he had held the cold body of his dead child Lara. It should be about the man so disturbed by the voices in his head that he stood in the balcony of a Germany team hotel ready to fling himself to his death. It should be about Robert Enke the man, not Robert Enke the goalkeeper.
But with the way the world is, it will never be so.
Life, as Enke’s friend and long-suffering agent Jorg Neblung observes during one particularly insightful moment, is indeed just a fucking soap opera. Enke is not the first footballer to suffer from depression. He will not be the last. But perhaps Enke’s story can put all our hyperbole about the beautiful game into context. When reading it, I remember the fleeting pang of disappointment I had felt when I realized that Germany’s goalkeeper had passed. Atrociously, it was not sadness at the death of a person, but just disappointment at the loss of who I felt would be the starting goalkeeper for Germany. The feeling was fleeting and I instantly felt guilty but it was there and it is a moment that I am still deeply ashamed of.
Perhaps reading this helped me atone somewhat for that unpardonable moment, but A Life Too Short swiftly transcends the borders that bind it as mere sporting non-fiction. I have read few other books, fiction or non-fiction that is so startlingly sensitive, honest and sincere.
Thus my recommendation — do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Ronald Reng’s A Life Too Short today. Forget transfer fees, forget deadline day, and forget coaching tiffs and agent fees. This is sport at its most human and sadly, but perhaps inevitably, you may not like what you see.
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