Rubén Suñé’s Leap of Faith

Rubén Suñé was desperately looking for a way out. In 1984, two years after the curtain had fallen on his playing career, the former Boca Juniors captain sought to end his own life. Since hanging up his boots severe depression had tightened its grip on Suñé, as he was increasingly unable to imagine life without the bright lights and adrenaline of professional football. Leaping from a seventh-floor window, he was sure the misery would soon be over.

Rubén José Suñé was born in Buenos Aires in March 1947 when Juan Domingo Perón, whose influence can still be felt in Argentine politics to this day, was one year into his first term as president. After graduating from the youth system Suñé made his Boca Juniors debut in 1967, spending the next five years at La Bombonera. Occupying the right-back berth, Chapa would help Boca lift the Copa Argentina in 1969 and the Nacional a year later.

On 17 March 1971 Suñé and his Boca Juniors team mates were involved in one of the most infamous Copa Libertadores matches in the history of the competition. Boca squandered a two-goal lead against Peruvian side Sporting Cristal and, with the game tied at 2-2, were aggrieved that the referee didn’t award a late penalty. With a minute remaining, Suñé instigated a brawl by attacking an opponent with a corner flag before being subdued by several police officers, leaving the field with a bleeding head wound that later required seven stitches. The referee was forced to brandish 19 red cards, and the expelled players were given jail terms for their part in the trouble although the sentences weren’t ultimately served. One player was left with a fractured skull, and the mother of another Cristal player died of a heart attack whilst watching the events unfold live on television. For their part in the disturbance, Boca were kicked out of the tournament.

When Boca named Rogelio Domínguez as their new manager in 1973, Suñé’s services were no longer required, forcing him to endure short spells with Huracán and newly promoted Unión. However, he returned to La Bombonera in 1976 in what proved to be a hugely successful and trophy laden period for the club under the newly appointed manager Juan Carlos Lorenzo.

Suñé, in his second spell with Boca, was deployed in a deep-lying midfield position and given the number five shirt, synonymous in Argentina with that role. The player proved to be economical and tenacious in possession, but he also distributed the ball well and conducted many Boca attacks.

The first trophy of the new era was the Metropolitano championship, fought over by teams from Buenos Aires, of 1976. This was followed by the Nacional title, which was settled after a tense final between Boca and their great rivals River Plate. In Racing’s El Cilindro stadium, Boca faced a strong River side containing Daniel Passarella and Leopoldo Luque, who would both be part of Argentina’s victorious World Cup squad two years later.

Suñé produced a captains’ performance, scoring the only goal of the game to hand Boca the title. In the 72nd minute Boca were awarded a free-kick from 30 yards, which Chapa stepped up to take. At the time River’s goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol was considered one of the best in the world, but on this occasion he was beaten by an act of gamesmanship on Suñé behalf. As Fillol was hugging his right hand post in attempt to line up his defenders, Suñé, given the go ahead by the referee, lifted the ball over the wall and into the opposite corner. Fillol scrambled across but was unable to get to the ball in time. The goal has taken on an almost mythical, mysterious status and oddly no moving footage exists.

The trophies didn’t end there and in 1977 and 1978 Boca Juniors placed the first two of its six Copa Libertadores in their trophy cabinet after defeating defending champions Cruzeiro and Colombian side Deportivo Cali respectively. Following the first of their two Copa Libertadores triumphs Boca faced German side Borussia Mönchengladbach – European champions Liverpool withdrew – for the Intercontinental Cup. After a 2-2 draw in La Bombonera Boca travelled to Germany, trouncing their hosts 3-0 to become world champions. Boca declined to defend their crown against European runners-up Club Brugge after Liverpool once again refuse to participate, leaving the 1978 title uncontested.

Suñé, who represented his country on six occasions and scored 36 goals in 377 appearances for Boca, finished his career with a season at San Lorenzo before retiring in 1982. It was those first two years of his retirement that he really struggled without the drug of football, inevitably leading to his suicide attempt.

Miraculously, Suñé survived his seven-storey fall and a redemption of sorts came in December 2016, shortly before his 70th birthday and 40 years after his goal against River Plate. Journalist Marcelo Guerrero, writing in Clarín Deportes, described the strike as “the most decisive goal in the history of the Superclásico.” A statue of the Boca favourite was unveiled at the club’s museum at their stadium on Calle Brandsen, alongside sculptures of other Xeneize legends such as Diego Maradona, Juan Román Riquelme, Martín Palermo, current manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto y Carlos Bianchi. Surrounded by ex-teammates, an emotional Suñé declared that the Boca supporters “have given me much more than I gave them”. Boca president Daniel Angelici said at the time of the unveiling: “these tributes are the least we can do for players that have given so much to Boca”.

Sadly, the depression suffered by the highly decorated Boca Juniors legend is an all-too-familiar tale across the game of football. Many players, such as Suñé, suffer post-retirement but there are innumerable struggling to cope with depression whilst an active player performing in front of thousands of fans and millions more on television.

At the highest level, modern footballers often do little to endear themselves to the masses due to their humongous salaries and, in some cases, questionable behaviour. Yet they are human beings and no amount of money can mask what are often deep-seated psychological issues. Steven Caulker, currently on the books of Championship side Queens Park Rangers, has suffered from depression in a vicious cycle that also included problems with alcohol and gambling. Although their financial situation means footballers don’t have the same base-level issues most working people face, such as paying rent and putting food on the table, money can prove detrimental. Caulker, in a frank interview with The Guardian in June 2016, said that the money actually gave him a “false sense of security” masking any issues that he was facing behind closed doors.

Depression is the biggest killer of men under 50 and that this affects football players should come as no surprise. Many cite boredom, and after a couple of hours training per day are left to their own devices. Given the goldfish bowl existence a lot of the top players live in they can’t go out and spend their riches, and instead are resigned to their homes for long periods, or hotels on away trips away from their families. Remain in the bubble and they are viewed as putting themselves on a pedestal above the common man; leave their comfort zone and they are often subjected to abuse and press intrusion into their personal lives.

Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper whose mental health was detailed in the stunning and moving A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng, stepped in front of a train at the age of 32 after a six-year battle with depression. Enke was at the top of his game, poised to become Germany’s number one following the retirement of incumbent Jens Lehmann. His situation shows that a lack of self-worth can affect people from all walks of life, and is often exacerbated by high-pressure industries such as professional football.

In 2016 Burnley’s Aaron Lennon – then at Everton – was stopped by police in Salford, Greater Manchester on a busy road in what many were describing as an attempted suicide bid. The winger was detained under the Mental Health Act but thankfully re-joined his team mates at Finch Farm for pre-season training ahead of the 2016/17 season.

Suñé’s depression drove him to attempt suicide but inexplicably he survived such a treacherous fall. His superb service to Boca Juniors did not go unnoticed and his statue proved to be a happy, redemptive ending to what could have so easily been a tragedy. Unfortunately there are thousands of players out there suffering with mental health issues – the cases highlighted here the tip of the iceberg – but thankfully it is becoming less of a taboo. Hopefully, with more and more speaking out those suffering can get the help they deserve without the stigma and scrutiny that usually comes with mental health. That the young men out there earn a fortune playing a game they love should not detract from the fact that they are still human beings suffering from issues that affect many.

First published in The Football Pink Issue 17. Issue 19 out now!

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