On the 18th of July 2014, German footballer Andreas Biermann took his own life after succumbing to a well-documented battle with depression. He plied his trade as a defender, predominantly playing in the German second division for sides such as Union Berlin and St.Pauli and during this time he was as candid and erudite about his condition as could ever have been expected from a professional sportsman. Aside from the tributes and eulogies offered by his former-teammates as to what a tragic loss the death of Biermann was, his story most pertinently highlights the appalling levels of support for mental health in football.
It is often said that football exists in a bubble. Indeed, any profession which considers Andy Carroll to be worth £35million perhaps does exist in some sort of vacuum, just outside the aspects of normality. But the obscene amounts of money and superstardom awash within the game do not insulate those inside it from the trappings of depression. Mental health afflictions do not discriminate. As the suicide of ex-footballer and erstwhile Wales national team manager Gary Speed can attest, success in your professional life bears no relation on the inner workings of a troubled mind.
Gary Speed’s parents’ admission that they are still “looking for answers” as to why their son took his own life is telling. An autopsy may well show the physical cause of death but no such procedure will ever unearth what drove a person to take their own life. Although, Mr.Speed’s suicide caused widespread shock within the world of football, Andreas Biermann’s death was unfortunately a touch more foreseeable. After the death of German goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009 (About whom the fantastic “A life too short” was written) Andreas admitted he too had tried to take his own life and this happened on two further occasions. Whereas Gary Speed’s battle with the illness was kept only to himself, the refreshingly open and honest Biermann spoke at length about his condition but the lack of support that was forthcoming was harrowing.
Most telling of all was Biermann’s assertion that any young player afflicted with the same condition would be better served keeping it to himself. It seems perverse that in a sport where the fans’ support for their team is as passionate and as heavy with emotion as football, that the support for those within the game is so deficient and bereft of empathy. Biermann said “I told all of the players about my condition before the first training session after my return. It was disappointing that nobody in the team contacted me to talk to me about my condition.” And this is the most troubling aspect of the entire story. If a player had been returning from a spell on the sidelines with a back injury, rest assured that many of his teammates would’ve asked whether he was feeling better. Its saddening that this courtesy does not extend to mental illness. Whether it’s the attitudes within the game that remain obstructive or a lack of practical mechanisms for support, stories such as his highlight many of the deficiencies within the sport and this absolutely has to change.