He was the captain of his club, the rock at the heart of the German national team's defence, and expected to be first pick in goal for his country at the 2010 World Cup. But Robert Enke committed suicide by throwing himself under a train. Yesterday, his widow revealed that his professional excellence masked a devastating depression he had been battling for years.
Teresa Enke was close to tears as she told a press conference how her husband had desperately tried to keep his depression a secret from the media to safeguard his private life and his career as a professional footballer.
"We thought we could cope with everything. We thought that with love there would always be a way," Mrs Enke told a press conference at her husband's soccer club Hanover 96. "But sometimes you just can't cope with everything. I tried to be there for him."
Mrs Enke said her husband had been receiving treatment for depression for months – but his condition had been with him for years. He was first treated for the disease in 2003. His depression grew worse in 2006 after the couple's two-year-old daughter Lara died as a result of a serious heart condition.
In May this year the couple adopted a three-month-old baby girl called Leila. Mr Enke's widow said her husband was very worried that he might lose custody of his adopted daughter because of his depression.
"He was frightened about losing Leila because she had a depressive father," Mrs Enke explained. "I always tried to help him out of his anxiety, but it didn't work."
Police said yesterday that Mr Enke had left a suicide note before parking his car near a level crossing on Tuesday night. He then apparently walked down a railway line. Some time later he is believed to have thrown himself under a speeding train.
Dr Valentin Markser, who had been Mr Enke's doctor since 2003, said the goalkeeper began receiving treatment for depression after suffering panic attacks and imagining that he would not be up to the performance expected of him during matches abroad. His condition then stabilised. However, Mr Enke returned for treatment in early October.
"In my opinion there was no indication that he would commit suicide," Dr Markser said. On the day of his death, Mr Enke had refused treatment, saying he felt fine. Police said that in his suicide note, Mr Enke had apologised to his doctor and his relatives for hiding the severity of his depression.
At Hanover, where fans and colleagues were reeling from the news yesterday, wellwishers converged on the club's stadium to light candles and placed flowers in front of the gates in the goalkeeper's memory. The club had played host to an Indian summer for Mr Enke's long and turbulent career, featuring glorious highs as well as the inevitable lows that all goalkeepers have to contend with after mistakes.
He had risen quickly to become the starting keeper for Borussia Mönchengladbach at the age of 22 – youthful for the position at a top club. But in 1998 the team finished near the bottom of the top German league, and Mr Enke's professional life began to go downhill.
In 1999 he transferred to Benfica in Lisbon before moving to Barcelona. A poor performance in a cup game ended Mr Enke's stint there, and when he moved on to Fenerbahçe in Istanbul in 2003, matters got worse. After his first game with the side, he made a decisive error and was booed and showered with beer bottles by fans.
After struggling to find a team, he made his comeback with Hanover 96 the next year, and worked his way up to contention for the national team, after years of being overshadowed by Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann in the battle for the job. Before long he was being honoured as Bundesliga keeper of the week and elevated to team captain.
Mr Enke's depression is not unprecedented in the German game: Sebastian Deisler, who was billed as the country's great sporting hope when he burst into the national team in 2000, was forced to retire from the sport in 2005, in part because of the illness. But Enke's death nevertheless left Germany's football community in disbelief. "We are all shocked. We simply don't know what to say," said Oliver Bierhoff, Germany's national team manager. And Angela Merkel, the country's Chancellor, sent a personal letter to Enke's widow, expressing her shock over his suicide.
The national team's friendly with Chile this Saturday has been cancelled, the German football federation said, because the players needed to mourn. And Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's 1974 World Cup winner, said he felt deep sadness at Mr Enke's death. "When you hear something like this, you just feel terribly small," he said.