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Jacob Sweetman: Living the dream

Sometimes footballers do deserve our sympathy – the recent case of Martin Fenin's struggle with alcohol addiction and depression is a case in point. It always looks like such a dream job from the outside, it surely can't be that hard. Can it?

Martin Fenin had only just become an Energie Cottbus player when he crashed out of a second floor window last month. The 24-year-old Czech hadn’t wanted to leave Eintracht Frankfurt in the first place, but he was struggling to get in the team, and the goals had dried up.

A hat trick on his debut for Eintracht against Hertha had got people more than excited and they were wondering why he had turned down the chance to go to Juventus. It’s a long way both geographically and mentally to Cottbus from there – 600 miles to the Polish border, and a whole different world – and Fenin’s sad goodbye to his old fans reflected this.

“Take care of yourselves” he typed.

He should have listened to his own words, but had he that level of self-awareness in regards to his illness, he probably wouldn’t have ended up falling out of that window. Or for that matter, it’s unlikely that there would be rumours about him crashing his car into a gravestone whilst still in Frankfurt either. Fenin is addicted to alcohol and pills, and is struggling daily with depression. It’s not always fun to be a footballer.

In the new, post-Robert Enke, fluffy world of German football, Cottbus were suitably caring. This is the new Germany where everybody is allowed to talk about their problems and we can all work through what is needed to be worked through, yeah? Well, sort of. Certainly boss Claus-Dieter Wollitz has given Fenin as long as he needs to get himself together, but it shows a startling lack of awareness that they signed him in the first place without, you know, even checking the guy out properly.

Fenin’s fall from the balcony of grace, was just another case of the dream going sour. The worst situation being that of the Hanover goalkeeper Markus Miller, currently undergoing treatment for depression. The fact that he was Robert Enke’s anointed replacement made the news somehow more poignant. The sport had undergone a long period of reflection after the national keeper’s suicide, and it was decided, nay decreed, that there would be no more men left behind, that it would now be considered manly to talk about these things, not to bottle them up.

The fact that Miller felt he could come out and say he was suffering is a vindication of that, but it is hard for the outside world to appreciate that these blokes can have problems too. They are not necessarily just living the dream.

We are happy to abuse footballers from the stands, to sing songs about their wives and their lives. At Millwall last week Michael Chopra was playing for Ipswich Town having just admitted that he had been attending the Sporting Chance clinic for a gambling addiction that was running out of control again. Town knew about his past this time, and was doing its best. The player himself has said that his only respite was getting onto the pitch. That was when he would stop thinking about betting. Towards the end of the game a Millwall fan – and they’re never the most charming of blokes – ran to the front and waved his betting slips in the strikers face.

We wonder why it’s hard for players to confront their demons. They are overpaid, but that’s not necessarily their fault. They are often moronic, incompetent, self-important and soul crushingly dull, but we are the ones who choose them as heroes. It’s not the other way around. Most of them would still be playing football whether we idolised them or not. In many ways the sad thing is that they don’t feel that they have a choice. Chopra spoke of having to sign for a club he hated for the money to pay off his bills. He’s got a good job, but these things should be taken in context.

So we should all watch Tom meets Zizou, the brilliant documentary about Thomas Broich, the wunderkind who was to be the new face of German football. He hated it, hated the pressure and hated the expectations. He just wanted to play some football and be able to have a sing with his mates with a couple of beers. To see the world, to use his brain, even. Broich was lucky, he got out. To Australia, where he plays like a god, but gets treated like a normal man. Now that’s living the dream.