The tears of national team general manager Oliver Bierhoff; the 35,000 sorrow-stained faces at the memorial service; the numerous volumes of the book of condolence; and the sea of candles, flowers and shirts left at the gates of his home ground.

Germany reacted with disbelief, grief and a tidal wave of raw emotion on hearing the news that 32-year-old Nationalmannschaft and Hannover goalkeeper Robert Enke had taken his own life; the victim of a long, losing battle with depression.

Enke, a racing certainty to be one of his country’s three keepers at this summer’s World Cup finals, showed no sign of being troubled during a Tuesday morning training session. But he certainly was, and after driving to a railway crossing close to the farmhouse he shared with his wife, Teresa, and eight-month-old adopted daughter Leila, he lay down in the path of a train, shortly before 6pm.

Although the locomotive’s two drivers saw him, there was no time to apply the brakes and Enke was killed instantly; a shockingly premature end to a life on earth and to an outstanding career.

After starting out with home-town club Carl Zeiss Jena, he went on to star for Borussia Monchengladbach and Benfica, and endured short but not-so-sweet spells at Barcelona, Fenerbahce and Tenerife before returning to the Bundesliga in the summer of 2004 to play for Hannover.

It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Supporters loved his brilliance between the posts and his everyman persona, while he thought as highly of them, never refusing a request for an autograph and always having time for a chat. An animal lover who had no fewer than eight dogs – all strays he rescued during his time in Portugal and Spain – he was the antithesis of today’s fast-living, celebrity-obsessed professional footballer.

Within hours of his death, his agent and friend, Jorg Neblung, confirmed it was suicide and police revealed a farewell note had been found in his abandoned car. In it, Enke spelled out his despair, how he saw no alternative and apologised to his wife for the heartache caused and for the deception involved in his last, desperate act.

The next day, Teresa Enke courageously told a press conference that her husband had been treated by a psychologist for depression and acute fear of failure in his professional life since 2003. Some progress had been made, but his recovery took a nosedive three years ago when his infant daughter, Lara, passed away from a rare heart defect.

Choking back the tears, Teresa Enke said Robert had kept his depression secret for two reasons: if it became common knowledge, he thought his football career would be over and social services might cancel the recent adoption of his baby daughter.

“When he was acutely depressed, it was a very difficult time,” she said. “Difficult above all because he didn’t want anything to get out. He was terrified of losing Leila and his sport. The periods he spent playing and training were very important to him. They kept him going. It was what he lived for. It was his life elixir.

“We thought with love we could get through this, but you don’t always make it.”

Total shock
The revelation of Enke’s problems came as a total shock to his employers at Hannover and Germany’s national team staff. No one had the slightest inkling of what he was going through.

“He knew how to hide the scope of his problems,” said his analyst, Valentin Markser. “He had developed defence mechanisms.”

Capped eight times, Enke was Germany’s No1 for most of 2008-09 and looked a good bet last summer to start in South Africa. However, not for the first time, bad luck would dog him. This autumn he was diagnosed with a bacterial stomach virus and, in his enforced absence, Rene Adler of Bayer Leverkusen filled in with aplomb, especially in the vital World Cup qualifying win against Russia in Moscow.

Not that all hope of going to South Africa was lost for Enke. Bundestrainer Joachim Low was an unconditional admirer of his and there was plenty of time for the Hannover man to regain lost ground.

“We will miss him as a first-class sportsman and an extraordinary man,” said Low. “We had wonderful discussions. He knew how to listen and always showed the utmost respect to others. Fairness was always an important part of his life. I will remember him with great fondness.”

To honour their fallen friend, the German federation called off the friendly international with Chile, and in their next fixture, against Ivory Coast a few days later, skipper Michael Ballack symbolically and poignantly placed Enke’s shirt on the substitutes’ bench.

Enke is by no means the only German player to have tussled with psychological turmoil. Guido Erhard – the former 1860 Munich, Wolfsburg and Mainz striker – committed suicide by throwing himself under a train at Offenbach station in 2002, while Germany and Bayern Munich midfielder Sebastian Deisler, who was once thought of as his country’s great footballing hope, also became depressed and eventually had to quit the game in 2007.

With the Enke tragedy top of the German news agenda, mental-health campaigners hope that the player’s legacy will be a sport in which depression is no longer considered a taboo subject; a malady to stigmatise rather than show compassion for.

The German league and federation plan to campaign for a greater awareness of depression in the game and if they can go some way to injecting a little more humanity into the unforgiving, macho world of pro sport, they will have done a good job.

Then, and only then, will we be able to say that Robert Enke did not die in vain.