On July 18, Andreas Biermann committed suicide. Over the next days, as the news spread around the game he loved in the city that thought it knew him – that thought that he would be okay – there was a bewildered sense of loss, of shame and of anger. Andreas was a footballer and football, it was felt, from within and without, had somehow failed to look after him.
I saw him playing once. It was a dull game and casting back through my notes, he is mentioned a single time. He was there, in illegible scrawl, that's all I knew. Had I realised at the time that this red-headed man, born in Spandau, had played for Hertha as a kid, then Union, Tennis Borussia and St. Pauli I might have paid him a little more attention. Had I known then of his struggle, he may have received more attention. But he was just another semi-pro, another scribbled-down name in a scrappy notebook, just another footballer on a cut-up pitch.
I didn't know then that he had been wrestling for most of his life with a depression that reduced everything in his life to shades of black and white. It was after the death of Robert Enke that Biermann had come clean about his illness, knowing that in his bravery there could be forged the opportunity for others like him – of whom there were, and still must be, thousands fighting this fight every single waking hour – to try and make it through, to try and daub their monochrome existences with a little light, a little colour.
But his TV appearances talking about depression, his book “Rote Karte Depression” (Red Card Depression), had somehow made things more palatable. The world of football patted itself on the back, it said that it was different now, post-Enke, and that we would never allow a player to fall into the abyss again. He hid in plain sight, his bravery must have helped so many, but the game didn't change all that much.
I am lucky in my life to have rarely had to confront this disease. I am lucky that I have never had to fight demons as enormous as those that Biermann fought against daily. But I know that when I have been confronted with the horrors of depression that I have closed my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and crossed and recrossed my fingers. If it is in the open, I would tell myself, then everything must be okay now. Things will work out for the better.
This was football's reaction, too, and it is an understandable one. It is a sport based on pulling together, on proving that collectively we are stronger than we are alone. No man should be left behind in football because to do so weakens the whole. But, sadly, because of its very nature, it also allows the weak to slip through the cracks. It always has and it still will.
We cannot blame the game for Andreas Biermann's death. He loved football, it was almost all he knew, and he was damn good at it. Online you can see the free-kick he scored for Union against Fortuna Düsseldorf in 2006-07. Twenty-five yards out from goal he hits a dipping, swerving effort into the box with his right foot. It spins in the air, evading the heads, not only of the strikers it is aimed towards, but also of the bewildered and lost defenders. The net billows and he turns immediately, running towards the fans.
The old Alte Försterei erupts and cries out his name as it is announced, Andreas... "Biermann, Fussballgott". Sure, the keeper should have done better, and the Union fans call everyone who wears the hallowed shirt "Fußballgott“, but the smile on his face as he is interviewed afterwards is a picture. As Karim Benyamina tears up behind him, jumping on his back and screaming jubilantly in his ear it is easy to see why some give so much to play this game and to have such fleeting, ecstatic moments of togetherness.
But football still has a lot to learn, as does greater society. We cannot continue to close our eyes, put our fingers in our ears whilst crossing and recrossing our fingers when faced with depression. With awareness will hopefully, slowly, come change and recognition. This is, hopefully, slowly already happening and Andreas Biermann's family will be able to be proud of the game that he gave so much to.
On Thursday, September 4, 1.FC Union will play a benefit game against a Berlin XI, coached by Holger Stanislawski and featuring former team-mates of his such as Björn Brunnemann and Micha Fuß. Brunnemann is now the captain of BFC Dynamo, Fuß the talismanic striker for TeBe. The sporting rivalries of a city will be put aside to raise money for Biermann's daughters and, hopefully, another small step towards the understanding of this disease will be taken. He wasn't a Unioner as he wasn't a Herthaner, a Paulianer or a Tennis Borussianer. Andreas Biermann wasn't just a footballer. Andreas Biermann was a Berliner and we should be proud of everything he managed to achieve for so many in his short life.
For it was on the pitch that Andreas Biermann could escape. It is tragically fitting that it is there he should be remembered.
For tickets to this game and support the cause, click the link here.