This is an article that was written before the untimely and tragic passing of Gary Speed. It has since been adapted. It is at points incoherent and rambly but I hope you bear with it.
The public consciousness and recognition of depression as an illness is better than it ever was, yet in football there seems to still be a reluctance to approach the issue, as there is also with other taboos like homosexuality and the lack of black mangers within the game.
Robert Enke’s suicide in 2009 shook world football. For a high profile player to kill himself was something never thought of in modern football, and the press that only interests itself in players’ off-the-field exploits when they are appropriately scandalous, was suddenly forced to deal with something important, rather than an Italian stumbling out of nightclubs following a night of cocaine and debauchery.
Enke’s case has seen a shift in attitudes in Germany, and one that allowed the resignation of Ralf Rangnick from his post as Schalke manager. In a post of such intense pressure, a perfectionist and obsessive such as Rangnick could no longer deal with the ‘nervous exhaustion of the role’ and stepped down.
Would this have been possible prior to the Enke tragedy? Would he have been mocked for lacking the mental fortitude to continue, or would he simply not have been brave enough to make the decision, with a whole range of possible consequences? Nobody knows; but the acceptance of his choice signalled an improvement in German attitudes towards the sullen monster of depression. Jupp Heynckes, the Bayern Munich boss, said that “the lesson to be learned is to look at sport as sport, and not give it excessive importance” – but the fear is whether this human approach will be ignored when owners and oligarchs are faced with losing millions through failure.
The footballing fraternity in Germany may have modernised its view, but seemingly the authorities there have not. Following the well-publicised issues faced by Breno, jailed for setting alight to his own home, Uli Hoeness – general manager of his club Bayern Munich – strongly criticised the police’s treatment of the depressed Brazilian saying, “to lock up a young man with a fragile psyche is absurd” and his case is still ongoing.
Referees have never been under such pressure as in the modern era, and in November, there have been suicide attempts by professional match officials in both Germany and Belgium. To simply blame a lack of support for players on the macho attitudes within sport is as ineffective as it is simplistic, but there must also be a support network in place for everyone else in the game. Officials, coaches and managers all come under the extreme pressures of the professional game and should be entitled to as much help as others if a network is truly being rolled out to help players.
Enke’s suicide is not unprecedented, and the original reason I wrote this piece was to inform people of the case of Abdón Porte as an interesting historical point. I have deleted large swathes of what I’d written as talking about suicide in football no longer seems so distant or unusual. Two high-profile cases in two years mean that looking back on this is not done with the same feelings as when I first came across his story a few months ago.
Porte was a defensive midfielder who was a multiple title winner with Nacional and had won the Copa America with Uruguay in 1917. Nicknamed ‘the Indian’, he was Nacional’s number five and wore the captain’s armband on many occasions.
He was described in the following manner many years after his death by ex-teammate and friend Lucas Scapinachis:
“Abdon Porte was remarkable, with extraordinary virtues and qualities, defensively and as a team player. Well-known and -remembered for a long time by old football fans. He was a great man, ‘friend of friends’; a farmer boy done good.”
He was a hugely successful player, winning an astonishing eighteen trophies in just six years of playing the game.
In the season of 1918 however, he had begun to lose his place in the team. On the 4th of March he played for Nacional against Charley – winning 3-1 with el Indio playing well – and as was customary, the players and directors headed to the club offices for a small celebration.
At around 1am, Porte left the party unnoticed and headed to the club’s stadium, Parque Central, where he made his way to the centre spot. At just 25 years of age, and with his wedding scheduled for the 3rd of April, Abdón Porte shot himself through the heart and died immediately.
Scapinachis wrote of this death in the most insightful terms;
“Why did he kill himself? Because nested in his heart and his whole being was the desire to always wear the tricolor… and when his legs – charged with victory – began to fail him, and at the cruel prospect of being removed from the team, he decided to end it. “
Of course it is important to recognise it was a different era, and a player killing themselves due to losing their place in a side may seem totally incomprehensible and implausible now but that is what depression is…
It is something that can’t be understood in simple terms, especially by those never to suffer from the condition, although Stan Collymore attempts to clarify his experiences through some excellent words here.
The example of Porte seems a ludicrous impossibility until it happens again, by which point the human tragedy has already passed and we are too late once again.
May the profile and treatment of depression and mental illness in football be raised so that we never need to deal with events like these again.
http://www.mind.org.uk http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/mentalhealth/Pages/Helplines.aspx http://www.depressionalliance.org http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/emotional_health/mental_health/ http://www.sane.org.uk/