An uplifting story of a player who is facing down his demons and beginning to win
The Bundesliga Second Division game between Cottbus and Dusseldorf last March is a game that appears relatively insignificant. For one man though, it was a huge milestone in a long personal battle. As the match ticked over into the 39th minute, the crowd rose to their feet to welcome Martin Fenin; back, after a five month absence.
Martin Fenin was born in the Czech Republic city of Cheb; birthplace of arguably the countries finest football export, Pavel Nedved. Unlike his iconic compatriot though, Fenin’s story so far is one of struggle, sadness, and unrealised potential.
Although Fenin impressed for the Czech Division side Fk Teplice, it was his performances at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada that thrust him into football’s limelight. Fenin spearheaded a Czech Republic team that while short on stars, impressed when it came to cohesive attacking play. The defining moment of Fenin’s tournament came in the final. A ball was clipped into the number nine’s feet. Fenin neatly controlled the pass into the air, swivelled his hips, and curled a technically brilliant volley beyond Sergio Romero.
The young Czech star was also enjoying life off the pitch, calving out a reputation as the team joker. During a training session he hurled himself to the ground after a challenge and appeared to be bleeding badly from the head. The medical team rushed over; seemingly alarmed they ‘treated’ him before he sprang to his feet and revealed the joke.
"I saw there was no contact on the collision, so I figured he was having another joke," head coach Miroslav Soukup said. "He's always doing these kinds of things...you have to watch him like a hawk."
It is a testament to how well Fenin had played, that he attracted so many plaudits in a tournament which contained the likes of Aguero, Suarez, Pique, Pato etc. He was named Talent of the Year at the 2007 Czech Footballer of the Year awards. Reports suggested it was only a matter of time before Serie A side Juventus snapped up the young Czech striker.
Fenin displayed the same calmness and consideration when deliberating his future, as he had on the pitch. The youngster was determined not to make the mistake of spending his developing years warming a bench. It was still a surprise though, that when two offers were on the table, one from Juventus and one from Eintracht Frankfurt, it was the latter that secured Fenin’s signature for a reported €4m.
Fenin cited his desire to play first team football and earn a place at Euro 2008 as the motivation behind choosing the Bundesliga outfit. Reports suggested that Juventus were planning on immediately loaning him out, and this had perturbed the youngster from heading to Turin.
‘…the main reason behind my decision to join Eintracht was that here I am their most expensive player ever. That proved to me that the club really wanted me. It would have been different had I joined Juventus where £2.6million transfers are a normal occurrence."
The Czech forward scored a superb hat-trick on his Eintracht Frankfurt debut against Hertha Berlin. The goals didn’t exactly flow from then on, but his performances were enough for him to be regarded as an initial success. He was called up to the National team for Euro 2008, vindicating his decision to reject Juventus.
After the summer of 2008 the fortunes of the forward started to turn. He was gaining a negative reputation off the field with stories of a wild party lifestyle. Reports of a drink related accident, where the Audi he was driving ended up in a ditch, didn’t help his cause. On the field things weren’t going well for the aspiring star either, in February 2009 his own coach publicly criticised him for diving too much. Just a month after his club manager had seemingly lost faith, things took a worse on the National scene as well. After a defeat to rivals Slovakia, Fenin, along with many other senior players, broke team policy by going out drinking. Fenin was banned indefinitely from the National team set-up; a bitter blow for a youngster who had forged his reputation wearing the National shirt.
Soon the performances and game time dried up. He was transferred to Energie Cottbus in the summer of 2011 for just €300,000. His goal against Argentina was now a distant memory, a painful reminder of a time when his football future looked so positive. His international ban had been lifted, but it was of little use; the forward was either not playing well enough, or simply not playing.
Fenin had become a withdrawn character, a shadow of the man who had been labelled the joker amongst the youth National team. Perhaps understandably his subdued demeanour was put down to a lack of confidence, mere frustration, and unhappiness at it his situation; but it was far deeper than that.
In the early hours of Saturday October 15th 2011, Fenin was rushed to hospital, suffering from a brain haemorrhage. The Czech had fallen two floors from his hotel room onto a courtyard roof. Blood tests revealed he had high levels of alcohol and sleeping pills in his system. The player himself couldn’t remember if he had jumped or fallen, but he had finally accepted his personal disposition.
"For several months, I have been suffering with the sense of resignation, loneliness and depression. My refuge in drugs has worsened the situation. I have fought against it and I must admit now that I can not fix this problem without help. The temporary refuge in drugs and drug-aggravated this condition and now culminated in the alarming diagnosis."
A blessing for Fenin was the new found awareness, empathy, and sympathy the German public had found regarding depression in football, due to the tragic events surrounding German keeper Robert Enke only a few months before.
His club, and indeed the whole German football family, threw their support behind Fenin. He was granted a leave of absence to recover both physically and mentally from his ordeal. A five month long mental battle ensued. The Czech Republic star repeatedly stated his desire to return and reach the top level.
On March 19th 2012, Martin Fenin made his comeback in a game between Energie Cottbus and Dusseldorf to a standing ovation. Finally able to reclaim control of his football career and rejuvenate his ambitions, it was an emotional return. It is far from the end of his problems, he still receives therapy for his depression, but it is a massive step on the road to recovery.
Depression in football, once a dismissed notion, has become something of a hot-topic. Tragic outcomes such as Robert Enke’s or Gary Speed’s serve as a massive reminder of just how serious the condition can get, and that many suffer in silence. Now aged 24 Fenin may not achieve everything he wants on the field, but he may take comfort in the fact that he is showing to fellow sufferers, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, it is possible to come back from the brink.