Tough at the top

Kit Holden 25 November 2011

Kit Holden takes a look at the consequences of football’s pressure-cooker environment

How fitting it was, that the two year anniversary of Robert Enke’s death arrived just forty-eight hours prior to Remembrance Day.

While England was bawling at FIFA over the technicality of wearing a poppy on their shirt, Germany was mourning for the third November in a row the loss of an individual who has redefined the nature of the word iconic.

It is difficult to recall an individual death that has hit a footballing nation as hard as Enke’s did Germany. His suicide coincided with one of the most promising periods in his career. It left in its wake a Germany so stunned, so distraught, that there was simply no room for phoney declarations of sorrow.

Memories of the former Hannover 96 and Germany goalkeeper are even more significant this year due to Babak Rafati, the Bundesliga referee who tried to commit suicide last Saturday.

The parallels that Rafati, who is also from Hannover, drew with Enke, particularly so close to the relevant date, touched a nerve for German football.

It is a credit to the DFB, and the German press, that the subject was reported and dealt with in a mature and sensible manner.

The echoes of Enke were plain to see in the behaviour of a country which has become ever more sensitive towards such issues, and can genuinely lay claim, at least in this respect, to a sense of perspective.

The coverage Enke’s death received has seen a phenomenal rise in sensitivity and understanding towards the polemical and often taboo subject of depression amongst footballers – a topic which rears its ugly head all too often in Germany.

With footballers almost unanimously condemned as a soulless race of mercenaries, an evolutionary mistake to be kept as far away as possible from the morally pure (doctors, lawyers, rugby players, bankers, politicians, you get my drift), it is easy to dismiss cases of depression in elite football as regrettable but not entirely pressing subjects.

Tell that to Sebastian Deisler, the gifted midfielder who ended his career early for fear of severe mental consequences. Tell that to Ralf Rangnick, who stepped down as Schalke manager earlier this season, following medical advice. Tell that to Gerard Houllier and Glen Roeder, both of whom were hospitalised in the early noughties after the stress of Premiership management got too much for them. Tell that to the family, friends and colleagues of Robert Enke and Babak Rafati.

In English football, grief and remembrance have become entirely detached from the wearing of poppies. Instead, they are held up as yet another example of how we are in some way emotionally superior because we make a noisy, accusatory scandal out of a symbol that is supposed to induce quiet, personal reflection.

With the sorrow for Enke and Rafati in Germany, there is none of this pathetic self-reference. Rather a very real, and very painful, sense of perspective on what, after all, is only a game.

Kit Holden