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Tuesday, November 25, 2003
A depressing tale

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

In early October, I was at a party where I found myself in the company of a few famous people. Hmm. Guess I have to clarify that, otherwise you'll think I'm one of those fancy bods who actually like loitering around, cocktail glass in hand, at places where you have to listen to Shakira while people discuss the advantages of four-wheel-drive cars. (Or whatever. You probably know more about parties than I do.)

It was like this: a friend of mine recently started his own company, which in a roundabout way deals with football, more precisely: footballers. I was invited to the opening, and since he is a really good friend, I said I'd drop by. He then suggested I bring my son along because some well-known players would be there and he might be interested in meeting them.

To cut this probably boring story short, which is only meant as an introduction anyway, we went there and it was fun. Not because of the famous people, though. And I have to say I was a bit proud of my son, who stayed as far away from the players as possible. Not so much because he is shy, which he is, but because it was all, er, a bit embarrassing.

There were two players present who represented Germany at the World Cup (one even played in the final), and people stuck to them like glue. At one point, one of them went into another room to get some drinks (alcohol-free, of course) and some 10 to 12 people followed him. Not to get drinks as well, you know, just because he went there.

They stared at his back, waited until he had been served, then followed him back into the room where they all had come from.

It was that scene I remembered the moment I heard that Bayern's Sebastian Deisler was being treated for depression in a Munich clinic.

Three days after his fine performance against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, the 11th, Bayern's business manager Uli Hoeness told his secretary to phone Deisler and ask him if he'd appear on behalf of the club at an Adidas promotion.

The secretary spoke to Deisler, then nervously approached Hoeness to tell him he needed to talk to the player himself, immediately.

Hoeness listened as Deisler told him he was at the end of his tether, then got in touch with coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, and the two of them drove over to Deisler's flat after having informed a specialised doctor, Professor Holsboer.

Holsboer later said he found a player who was incapable of doing anything, let alone play football or handle a PR campaign. A day later, Deisler entered a clinic for treatment, both medicinal and psychological.

Nine days later, Bayern went public with this news, after having gotten Deisler's assent. Uli Hoeness explained this decision by saying the club was trying to prevent outlandish rumours from springing up, pointing towards the situation at Hannover with Jan Simak.

The young Czech playmaker Simak has had press you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy for sporadic behaviour that was at best eccentric, at worst scandalous. He was called everything, from a brat to an egomaniac, until he asked his club for a few days leave to arrange certain matters at home in September.

He's not returned since, and Hannover finally admitted he was suffering from what is called a burn-out syndrome: something between complete mental exhaustion and a milder form of depression.

Hoeness was as diplomatic as possible, but what he was saying between the lines was that if a player is suffering from a severe illness, especially one that is little understood by most people, you should be open about it, because the patients have problems enough without being called divas or something worse by people (and that means both press and fans) who don't really know what's going on.

Sadly, being open about doesn't necessarily mean people do understand what's going on.

On Sunday, Leverkusen's captain Jens Nowotny commented: 'Well, you could say this is a fashionable illness', and then he went on about how this would be a totally wrong way of viewing it because many, many people suffer from similar problems and that it was really serious and so on and blah, blah, blah. But like most people who begin their sentences with 'You could say' he sounded as if that was exactly what he was saying.

Maybe I'm doing Nowotny an injustice here, but I was much more impressed with Gladbach's business manager Christian Hochstätter, a former pro: 'Nobody was suffering from such illnesses when I was a player,' he said.

But just when I was about to suspect he'd add that people who earn lots of money and can play a game for a living have no right to injuries other than torn ligaments, he added: 'I guess that makes you realise how much football has changed and that something may have gone wrong.'

Hoeness, I should point out, said one should not draw rash conclusions and that football may have little to do with Deisler's depression, as it takes many things, a genetic predisposition among them, for the illness to break out. And I'm also fairly sure that Hochstätter is a bit short-sighted in that there must have been players in his time who were depressive or suffering from other mental problems; they were only more likely to drown that in drink instead of seeking help in times when one knew little about such things.

In any case, not for a single second would I have wanted to swap places with the two players I met at that party.

The one who went for the drinks was vilified, and I mean vilified, by the largest German sports paper a month later for picking up a red card in what was only a football match. He still has to autograph something for us, but my friend, the one who owns the company, says he, the player, doesn't go out much anymore.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

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