FEATURE | More than a distant memory – What football can learn from the story of Sebastian Deisler

This article is taken from Get Football’s new European Football publication, The Modern Footballer. Drew Thompson takes a look at what football can learn from the story of Sebastian Deisler. Print and digital copies available here: http://bit.ly/TMFIssue1

THE annals of football history are littered with stories of what could have been. We can all cite former players who showed powers beyond understanding, but never quite made it for one reason or another. Everyone remembers Denílson during his time at Real Betis; how he dazzled with his sheer mastery of a football. There was also Ricardo Quaresma, who some thought to possess even greater potential than Cristiano Ronaldo. There are other names as well, both in recent memory and from days gone by, but one in particular will be remembered in Germany rather well; Sebastian Deisler.

Born in the foothills of the Black Forest in the small city of Lörrach, Deisler began his footballing education like most other kids, for a small local side (FV Tumringen) at the age of five. After further stints with TuS Stetten and FV Lörrach, Deisler signed with Borussia Mönchengladbach when he was 15.

His introduction to top level football came at the age of 18, when Deisler made his debut for Gladbach in 1998. After making seventeen appearances and bagging one goal in the process, he would move on to Hertha Berlin the following summer after Gladbach failed to avoid relegation. Unknowingly, his second season of professional football would be a harbinger of things to come.

As his reputation in German football continued to grow – as evidenced by being capped at all German youth levels by 1999 – Deisler was hit with his first serious injury; a cruciate ligament rupture. It would not be the last time he would lay on a treatment table. Just a year later, Deisler tore muscle fiber in his knee during the 2000/01 ruckrunde, leading to one of the most turbulent periods of his career the following season.

By now he was being hailed as one of a new generation of German footballers; players who were meant to push the nation forward in the new millennium. It was this potential and subsequent expectations and pressure placed on him that he would struggle with down the road.

In October 2001 he suffered a capsular tear that would keep him out of contention for 25 matches for Hertha until March of 2002. After recovering, disaster would befall him yet again; this time, damaged cartilage would result in Deisler being sidelined for the longest single period in his career.

Despite being injured, it would not stop him from completing a move to Bayern Munich in the Summer of 2002. Even if, once recovered, it was presumed that he would not be able to reach his full potential while with the Bavarians. 259 days later, and now a Bayern player, Deisler was finally able to try and establish himself and make good on his potential. He would never be successful in this endeavour.

The following season he yet again tore muscle fibers and, despite being unavailable for only four of Bayern’s fixtures, the mental and emotional strain he began to suffer on account of these recurring injuries and being under pressure to deliver as a player began to manifest itself in a serious struggle with depression that would eventually spell the end of his career.

After months of treatment, he would yet again return to playing duties for Bayern. But the storyline would only read more heartbreak as he – yet again – suffered another serious knee injury, making him unavailable for over 240 days. One month after finally recovering, a final muscle tear would be the last he would allow himself to suffer. At just 27 years of age, during his prime playing years, Sebastian Deisler retired from football in 2007. Citing exhaustion and not being able regain confidence in his ability to stay fit, Deisler only logged 195 appearances in a career that spanned nine seasons.

Two years later, Hannover 96 and German international keeper Robert Enke committed suicide. His wife later confirmed that he too had been suffering from depression ever since the death of his daughter three years prior. Though not tied to football, Enke’s death was not taken lightly; the seriousness of depression among professional footballers was soon to come to the fore.

Many other high-profile footballers have come out about their struggles with mental health in the years since. Gianluigi Buffon, Aaron Lennon, Andrés Iniesta, Danny Rose, Michael Carrick, Emmanuel Eboué, and Francesco Acerbi are just a handful of footballers at the highest level that have spoken about depression and mental health awareness. Some have suffered because of injuries, others because of personal issues and the loss of family, but all cases are compounded by the pressures of football at the top level.

Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne meanwhile, two iconic English footballers of decades past, both struggled with depression and alcoholism that took years to control, if it could be controlled at all. And of course, the tragic death of Gary Speed just two years after Enke’s.

Deisler is lucky, but also deserves an enormous amount of credit for putting his well-being before a sense of service that many players have regarding their club and it’s supporters. He would later remark; “I always repressed things and thought: ‘the club needs me to perform.’ It could not continue like this.”

During his ascendancy, the little time that we were graced by Deisler’s presence on the pitch was exciting. Supremely gifted on the ball, ahead of his time, and hyped to the point where he was dubbed the saviour of German football, Deisler’s is a cautionary tale of the pressures of the modern game.

He would later reflect upon his move from Hertha to Bayern, and how he was not shielded from targeted abuse while highlighting the role of Bayern director Uli Hoeneß. “Instead he [Hoeneß] stood by and watched as I was hounded out of Berlin. That’s what began to spoil my view of football. That was my shot in the neck. I know today that that’s the point at which I should have stopped.”

Supporters and clubs alike so often forget that, though they appear to be superheroes to young and old, footballers are very much human. The constant spotlight, the constant attention, and never having a moment’s peace – whether you are performing or not – has been an issue for decades. Deisler’s tale was one of the first to truly bring these issues to light.

After Deisler’s retirement, Hoeneß, the man who failed to protect one of his own, would remember an opportunity missed; “He is one of the best players Germany has ever produced and therefore it is so difficult to comprehend. However, we have lost this battle.” Franz Beckenbauer would also weigh in in the wake of Deisler’s decision to hang up his boots, commenting on his personality as a potential cause; “Deisler came to our club an extremely introverted person. But nobody could have predicted that it would have turned out to be a psychological problem.”

But this isn’t just a tale of despair, disappointment, and pain. When thinking of Sebastian Deisler, consider just how gifted he was. Once described as “physically and technically the best player in Germany” by Beckenbauer, and by Rudi Völler as a player who “would be influential for Germany for ten years,” Deisler’s career path should be celebrated all the same.

Though he may not have reached the dizzying heights that many had predicted him to hit, Sebastian Deisler remains one of the most influential footballers of his generation. He showed what could be possible in a period of football that was in desperate need of a refit. He showed us all what was to come.

Drew Thompson


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