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Nov 3, 2009

Chased by the Black Dog

Guido Erhard tried to write a book. The working title, he said, was: "Truth Be Told - A Life on the Brink". He said the book would "give other people hope and courage". He didn't say it was also a way of coming to grips with his own demons, but he didn't have to.

"Truth Be Told" was never published, because on a cold, dark and snowy Thursday in February 2002, Erhard hurled himself in front of an incoming high-speed train at Offenbach main station. At about the same time, Sebastian Deisler was working hard on his comeback. A few months previously, the Hertha midfielder had injured his knee yet again during a game against Hamburg.

This physical problem, however, was not what Deisler was really worrying about. On the same day he sustained the injury, a tabloid had disclosed that he would leave for Bayern Munich in the summer. The paper had even printed a photocopied bank form that proved Bayern had already paid the player a signing-on fee of 20 million German Marks.

"I received threatening letters: We're gonna get you! We're gonna kill you!," Deisler recalled while talking to a journalist last month. "That's what ruined football for me. That was the shot in the neck."

Deisler has stayed out of the limelight since he prematurely retired from the game in early 2007, less than two weeks after his 27th birthday. The reason he's now given this interview and a few others, is that he's done what Erhard couldn't. He's published a book about his struggle against depression, penned by the Berlin author Michael Rosentritt.

When, three months ago, Svend Frandsen wrote an article on Deisler for Soccernet in which he mentioned this upcoming book, quite a few readers left a comment saying it was a biography they were really looking forward to reading. At the time, I agreed. But when the book finally came out, on October 8, I didn't buy it. And I'm not sure I will anytime soon.

That's because of interviews like the one I quoted from above and a few excerpts from the book I've read in magazines. For quite a while I couldn't put my finger on what it was that was bugging me. Then I came across this line from the book, something Deisler told Rosentritt: "I still have to learn to really accept my illness."

I guess he's right, he hasn't. I'm not holding it against Deisler, as I know from first-hand experience that accepting a situation is the hardest thing to do when you're depressed, it is characteristic of the illness. It's also very human. Most people have to find explanations for things, they analyse and probe, and often they need to have somebody or something they can blame for what's happened.

Deisler blames Hertha because the club botched the crisis in late 2001 ("Dieter Hoeness just watched as I was being run out of town"). He blames the pressure that comes with today's professional game ("What I learned at the hospital is that I'm a normal case, the expectations would have broken everyone else, too"). He blames the fickleness so widespread in football ("You don't know what it's like to be loved and then, overnight, to be hated").

Guido Erhard also needed someone to blame. When he was asked when and how he'd first sunk into a really deep depression, he said: "My girlfriend left me and all of a sudden - boom!"

That was in the late summer of 1997. Erhard was 27 years old, the same age Deisler was when he quit the game. But Erhard was not a marquee star with Hertha or Bayern, not a German international. He was playing second-division football at Mainz 05. "Erhard was the life of the party," is how Christian Heidel, then as now business manager at Mainz, remembers those days. But on a coach ride to an away game in Cologne, Erhard abruptly turned towards his team-mate Lars Schmidt and began telling him about the various methods to commit suicide. A few days later, Erhard went to see the team physio, told him "I can no longer think straight" and said all his thoughts revolved around ending his own life.

He spent the next seven months in a renowned psychiatric hospital in Mannheim. After two seasons in the Bundesliga, with 1860 Munich, and six in the second division, his professional career was over, but at least his life was saved. For the time being.

As you can see, Deisler wasn't the first professional footballer to undergo treatment for clinical depression. Besides Erhard, there was also Hans van de Haar, a Dutch striker who scored ten Bundesliga goals for Ulm in the club's only Bundesliga season. He was treated for depression in 2000. And of course there was the famous case of Aston Villa's Stan Collymore, who received treatment in early 1999.

Back then, the psychiatrist Dr Cosmo Hallström, an expert in the field, said that "footballers live in unreal worlds" because "every time you go out for a drink, there is a photographer following you or someone else is watching you". Hallström also explained, in the words of a newspaper, "that Collymore's problems were down to the stresses and strains of modern-day football".

That's also the explanation usually put forth in connection with Deisler, but I wonder how it can account for the cases of Erhard and van de Haar. They did not live in such an unreal world and chances are slim indeed that either of them was ever trailed by a photographer or stared at in the streets. And if the term "modern-day football" is supposed to mean that anguish of the soul was less common among footballers in the past ... well, that's patently wrong.

In 1966, two very famous goals were scored in German football, both by men who battled demons. Reinhard Libuda, whose long-range chip won the Cup Winners' Cup for Dortmund, was almost certainly depressive. Off the pitch, said his biographer Thilo Thielke, Libuda "seemed frightened, unhappy about himself and his fate and he was always very awkward".

Wolfgang Weber, who scored the last-gasp equaliser in the World Cup final between West Germany and England, was not diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression until after his playing career had ended, in the late 1970s. ("There were some private things I couldn't deal with," he says. "But I don't want to talk about it anymore.")

Yet you can't help thinking he's always had a dark streak when you see the famous photo taken after the 1966 final. It shows the German players on their way to the Wembley dressing rooms. Only Weber is not moving. Hands on his hips, he is, with a pained expression on his face, staring backwards at an empty pitch, as if he just can't let go. "I have learned to live with it in the meantime," he says 43 years(!) later. "But it was very difficult for me to accept we lost this final."

And we can go further back than 1966. American readers will probably be aware that the first famous account of a high-profile athlete suffering from depression dates from 1955, when Red Sox centre fielder Jimmy Piersall published his autobiography "Fear Strikes Out", later made into a Hollywood movie. But even in that era, Piersall was an exception only in that his problems got written about.

Even among the German footballers who played under the iconic national coach Sepp Herberger in the 1950s, a time and a side synonymous with the team-as-a-cosy-family ideal, there were many tortured souls. Ernst Juskowiak is an obvious example, as he clearly sank into a form of depression after being sent off in the 1958 World Cup semi-final. Three years later, during a game between his club Fortuna Düsseldorf and Bottrop, Juskowiak walked off the pitch just like that. And never returned.

Then there's 1954 World Cup winner Werner Kohlmeyer, of whom his team- mate Werner Liebrich said: "He was a great funster, but he was also a very solitary man." (Not a bad definition for a bipolar disorder.) "Everything that happened after the World Cup," Kohlmeyer once said, "was one huge lost weekend." He died in 1974, at only 50 years of age, a lonesome drunk living with his mum.

Other cases were less well-publicised, if at all. Writer Stefan Chatrath pointed out that Jupp Posipal "went into therapy in the later stages of his career because of depression". And Ottmar Walter, Fritz's younger brother, slashed his wrists in early 1969. He was found in the nick of time and a blood transfusion saved his life.

If there is something all these suffering athletes had in common, I strongly doubt we'll find it in the world of football but rather somewhere deep down their souls. When a 24-year-old defender by the name of Rainer Rühle took his own life in May 1981, people didn't blame "the stresses and strains of modern-day football" or said his club Alemannia Aachen had done anything wrong. Instead they blamed his girlfriend, who'd left Rühle a few weeks earlier.

Which is also too simple. Even Guido Erhard quickly realised that his girlfriend leaving him was just the trigger, not the reason, for his pains. Later, when he told people about the book he was writing, he hinted he'd found "something in his past" that could account for his depressive inclinations. Which sounds as if he, too, still couldn't really accept it; but at least he no longer blamed his former girlfriend. Let alone football.

Because while the game certainly has its hazards for both body and soul, it can also help - even those who are depressive. Uwe Leifeld, who played 179 games in the top flight, for Bochum and Schalke, attempted suicide no less than four times in 2006, thirteen years after the end of his career.

Leifeld was lucky in that the men who heard - und understood - these cries for help were former team-mates such as Andreas Müller and Stefan Kuntz. The latter gave Leifeld a job as a talent scout. "I'm no longer on the pitch," Leifeld says, "but that's the only difference. Apart from that, it's just like in the old days - we work together."

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