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Sometimes the Black Dog Wins

Written By Justin on Friday, January 13, 2012 | 2:51:00 PM

Robert Enke's suicide in November 2009 shocked the football world and sent much of Germany into mourning for an enigmatic and brilliant goalkeeper the country had only just begun to get to know. Ronald Reng has written a powerful and important book detailing Robert's life and death and the vicious, intractable force of clinical depression.

This is not a review but a series of impressions. We've discussed the relationships between rival keepers here before, and these relationships played a compelling role in Enke's life. He was intimidated by the veteran Uwe Kamps as a young keeper at Borussia Monchengladbach, then formed a healthier, teacher-mentor relationship with young reserve Jose Moreira. Later, during a disastrous stint at Barcelona, he shared a kind of unspoken simpatico with Roberto Bonano, who, like Enke himself, felt misused by the Catalan giants. Finally, as he rebuilt his career at Hannover 96, he found himself thrust into intense competition for the Germany number one shirt with Rene Adler. Fresh off the Kahn-Lehmann feud that had lasted nearly a decade, fueled by the likes of Kicker and Bild Magazines. He didn't know what to make of Adler's friendliness, especially with the tabloids seeming to favor his rival, but in the end had to simply admit that Adler was "a sound guy."

Robert suffered only two depressive periods in his life, each lasting just a few months, but with the second proving fatal. Reng - who was a friend of Robert's - pulls off the impossible: he takes the reader's presumably healthy mind into the hopeless mire of the depressive's. For anyone who has dismissed a suicide as 'selfish', this is important to understanding how destructive this illness - and it is an illness - can be. Nobody blames someone for getting bone cancer, but society still doesn't understand when people with dysfunctional brains behave illogically. During his depressive periods, Robert saw no hope in anything. He couldn't see how loved he was, how successful. It didn't matter. All he experienced was profound physical exhaustion and an unendurable hopelessness.

There is, of course, the uncomfortable question of how being a goalkeeper affected Robert's mindset, explicated best by a disastrous Spanish Cup game for Barcelona which he saw as his last chance to make something of his career there. Pressure and nerves are part of the job, but certainly during his depressive periods, attempting to battle his illness while keeping it secret as a public personality and continuing to play at a high level would have been too much for anyone to bear. Some of the most difficult reading is the descriptions of Robert trying to force his way through the final few games of his life.

There is much more to the story and the book. There are lighter moments, many great goalkeeper lessons, and more than a little glove talk throughout (Reng clearly knows his gloves). It's a remarkable literary achievement on multiple levels.

Let's not forget that among everything else, Robert was a brilliant goalkeeper.