Three years ago, I read a book that changed the way I watch football. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke is the best sports book I have ever read. Written by Ronald Reng, it details the struggles of German goalkeeper Robert Enke who lost his battle to depression, stepping in front of a train in 2009 at the age of 32. He was the German number one at the time.
While Enke’s struggles with depression and anxiety did not entirely have their roots on the football field, the pressures from both fans and pundits certainly did not help. Like any footballer in the top leagues, he faced a scrutiny that became personal more often than not.
Unfortunately, this is generally how we treat footballers. With the ability to stream the English Premier League online, and plenty of coverage now for the lower leagues as well, the scrutiny is only increasing and getting more personal.
A couple of examples come to mind.
The 2016 Euros was no doubt a huge disappointment for England. Our players did not perform at the standard we expect of them. Roy Hodgson’s tactics were uninspired at best. But one major problem that was obvious for anyone who watched the match against Iceland was a lack of confidence. And we should have expected that, with tabloids criticising everything the players did.
One of the most targeted players was Raheem Sterling, then only 22. Not only were his performances criticised, but a report on the expensive home he bought for his mum attacked him just for using the money he was earning. That sort of criticism could have destroyed such a young player’s career.
Fortunately for him, guidance from Pep Guardiola has helped him grow from that experience and become one of the best wingers in the Premier League. Not every player recovers from such a hit to his confidence. Fernando Torres, for example, went from being one of the best strikers in the Premier League to being unable to score a sitter.
The German word schadenfreude refers to finding joy in someone else’s misfortune. It is rife in football. We love watching rival teams fail. But the problems start when it becomes targeted at certain players, with fans rooting for their humiliation simply because they play for a different team.
It’s not only players from rival teams. When we feel that a player of our own is not performing well enough, we treat them as if they’re letting us down on purpose. We may even find a certain joy in watching them fail more and more, in the hope that they are dropped for the foreseeable future.
It is strange, when you stop to think about it, that we are so blasé about piling abuse on people who we have no personal connection to. We wouldn’t treat people like that in general. Something about their being a professional footballer makes us feel that it’s okay.
Reading about Robert Enke’s struggles forced me to reevaluate the way I enjoy football. I started censoring myself, every time I felt anger or hatred towards people trying their best to do a difficult job in front of a huge audience of fans either expecting them to be brilliant or hoping that they fail.
As football fans, it is difficult to learn empathy for players who we feel entitled to love or hate. But we need to train ourselves, for the sake of those we like and those we don’t. At best, we can destroy someone’s form by leaving them bereft of confidence. At worst, we can push them further towards self-loathing, depression, and even suicide.