x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Germany's last line of defence

The much travelled Robert Enke is a somewhat different German custodian compared to his predecessors.

Robert Enke dives for the ball during a Germany training session at the Sued Stadium in Cologne.
Robert Enke dives for the ball during a Germany training session at the Sued Stadium in Cologne.

At the end of our interview, Robert Enke offers to drive me down to the commuter train station at Neustadt. He knows the timetable by heart, as he regularly takes the local train from the small village where he lives to Hannover, even now he is Germany's No 1 goalkeeper. If it needed any proof that Enke, 32, who sat out Germany's World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan last night with flu, is special, it would be the image of one of the country's star performers sitting between locals on a commuter train. But of course it does not need any further evidence.

His whole life is living proof that Enke, of Bundesliga club Hannover 96, is in many ways a unique goalkeeper. In a country that prides itself on turning out physically - as well as verbally - commanding goalkeepers, Enke is held in the same high regard as his more outlandish and outspoken predecessors such as Oliver Khan and Jens Lehmann, even if the German media have labelled him as too soft and polite, a thinly veiled barb that perhaps he does not have the character to occupy the role as the team's last line of defence.

Enke though, refuses to change. "I will never speak badly about my rivals for the No 1 spot or play mind games with them. I know what respect is," says Enke. He was made captain of Benfica aged 23 and was courted by a host of Europe's premier sides before opting to join Spanish giants Barcelona in 2002. He failed to make the grade in Catalonia and was farmed out on loan two years later to Fenerbahce in Turkey. But the experience was far from a happy one and Enke refused to play for them after his lone appearance - a 3-0 defeat to Istanbulspor - after fans pelted him with bottles and blamed him for the loss.

"I just felt totally out of place in Turkey with the exaggerted passion of the fans and the club. I felt absolutely lonely and deeply sad." In January 2004, Tenerife, in Spain's second tier, decided to take a punt on Enke and he has not looked back. He joined Hannover six months later where he established himself not only as first choice for the club but as one of the country's standout performers which has seen him voted the best goalkeeper in the league by his fellow professionals in Kicker magazine earlier this year.

Enke's climb to the top has seen him slip down a few rungs on the ladder along the way, something he is quick to ackowledge. "I suppose, it has to be my destiny that everything in my career has to be weird," he says. "Just sometimes, I wished it would have been a tiny bit easier." When he says it, while driving me to the station, I instinctively look down to the key in the car. On the key-ring there is a picture of his daughter Lara. She was born with a cardiac defect.

Her first few months were spent in intensive care. Enke lived between the training-pitch and the hospital - images he does not find easy to forget. "Lara, my wife and me sitting in the deserted hospital canteen on Christmas Eve eating mushy salmon," was one vivid memory of what should have been one of the Enke family's more happier times of year. Lara, a survivor very much in the mould of her father, survived three life-threatening operations before she reached the age of two.

On September 17, 2006, just after her second birthday, she died after ear-surgery which was supposed to be routine, but she suffered complications. Enke has never spoken about her death publicly, preferring instead to only speak about his pain to close friends, family and to people who got to know her. "Remember the photos of her we looked at yesterday. She was smiling on every second picture. She was such a happy and brave girl."

Lara's death has taught him something: "I don't want to minimalise football, the sport is very important to me and I am very ambitious. But at the end, it is always just football." sports@thenational.ae