Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughTaboo in football is homosexuality - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Taboo in football is homosexuality - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Taboo in football is homosexuality

It is often said that the last remaining taboo in football is homosexuality with only one British professional footballer ever coming out, with tragic consequences, and the list of openly gay footballers across the world far too small, both ethically and statistically.

However, after reading Ronald Reng’s remarkable biography of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, it is clear there is another taboo in football; mental illness.

For those unaware of the story of Enke, his football career included stints at Borussia Munchengladbach, Benfica, Barcelona, Fenerbache, Tenerife and, most notably, at Hannover 96.

Intermittently, from his spell at Barcelona in 2003 until his suicide in November 2009, he suffered from depression partly due to footballing pressures such as the fear of making a mistake and public ridicule through the media and the fear of moving into the unknown with a move to a new club, but also due to personal problems such as the death of his daughter Lara aged two in 2006.

The description in the book about his breakdowns at Barcelona and Fenerbache are particularly harrowing as is the pace of Enke’s fall from warm, popular captain of Hannover, involved in all manner of community work, to a man who can barely get out of bed in the morning.

A running theme of the latter half of the book regarding the re-emergence of Enke’s condition in the Summer of 2009 is his fear of being found out as it appears he increasingly believes that a successful football career and a coming out as a depressive are irreconcilable. This pressure builds before (and hugely contributing to) the heartbreaking end to his story.

However, every sad story can have a positive outcome and this one is no different. A case emerged earlier this year where another Bundesliga player wanted to kill himself and, when his club found out, they arranged for the player to be privately admitted to a clinic where they kept in regular contact with the doctors there whilst paying the player’s full salary whilst he underwent treatment.

It is this enlightened approach to the issues of mental health which make the Bundesliga unique in football and another reason for viewing it as the alternative best league in the world..

The problem stems, in my view, from the ultra-masculine world that is the dressing room where any perceived weakness is picked on and preyed upon and, with the greatest respect, footballers are not known for either sensitivity when it comes to mental problems or knowledge of issues such as depression.

Not that a lack of knowledge is limited to the footballing fraternity. Depression and other mental illnesses are very misunderstood by the public at large which exacerbates the problem for players admitting they have a problem. Football fans are also not known as a tactful bunch when in the heat of a match and opening up a weakness such as depression can lead to all sorts of issues for a player.

The book itself exposed my own personal lack of knowledge about the illness that is depression regarding its symptoms, causes and treatments. For starters, the term ‘depression’ is somewhat misleading as it makes it sound like an extreme form of sadness where it is much more complex than that.

Furthermore, some of the descriptions of the thoughts and feeling that Enke goes through are very identifiable for me personally and for others, as noted by the incredible amount of letters Reng received after writing the book from people thanking him for shedding a light on their own illnesses and helping them come to terms with it. Clearly, depression remains an under examined issue throughout society which only serves to damage its sufferers.

Above all else, the biography itself provides an insight that should be a simple enough concept but remains hard to believe for many people and ties in with the public misconceptions about mental illness; depression can affect anyone regardless of class, wealth or success.

Enke was a man with enough money to live comfortably on, a loving and devoted wife, a young daughter, a strong network of friends and the chance to fulfil his dream of playing for his country at a World Cup as the no.1 goalkeeper. But, despite all of this, he had ‘the black dog’ in his mind which he just could not shake off.

It should come as no surprise that footballers can suffer from depression and mental illnesses as a whole as the immense pressure they are under must be extremely difficult to withstand. They are under constant pressure from the media, fans, rivals for their positions and their managers and coaches all which breed fear of making a mistake and ultimately living in fear.

 Football can still learn a lot about how to deal with mental illness but the example set in Germany earlier this year is a step forward in breaking this taboo. It will, of course, just forever be a shame that it took the suicide of a talented young man to put the gears of change in motion.

Daniel Whiteway @Dan_Whiteway

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