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The view from Germany

A story from behind the camera

January 12, 2010
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

Almost exactly 30 years ago, in January 1980, a man known by two names died at only 38 years of age. There were many facets to his unusual life, and so he's remembered for many things, depending on who you ask. The world of sports, however, primarily remembers him for having taken Germany's most famous football photo of all time.

SoccernetThe cover of the book "Das Tor des Jahrhunderts" - "The goal of the century"
In fact, the photo is so famous that it became the focus of a heated but fairly pointless quarrel in the late 1990s, thirty years after it had been made. Which, in its own way, was quite fitting, because the picture we're talking about would have never been taken if there hadn't been a heated and pointless family quarrel to begin with.

The head of this family was one of the most controversial figures in German postwar history, the publisher Axel Springer. You may know Springer for the tabloid empire he built, spearheaded by the notorious "Bild" newspaper, but there were many other publications he launched or bought, making him our own Rupert Murdoch or Randolph Hearst.

Like most such powerful men, Springer was deeply conservative and his papers leaned to the right, or at least to the very populist, which made him the natural enemy of the radical students of the late 1960s. When Rudi Dutschke, the most famous spokesman of the German student movement, was shot at and critically wounded in 1968, many people blamed the anti-student campaigns of the "Bild" newspaper for this attempted assassination.

Springer's eldest son, Axel Junior, was born in 1941. By all accounts, Junior lacked his dad's ambition and was rather the melancholic type. He was not at all interested in having a career or even, God forbid, rule his fathers empire. In fact, it almost seems as if he intentionally tried to avoid getting all those qualifications he would have needed to follow in the magnate's footsteps. When Junior left the last of many boarding schools, he had been educated in three countries but hadn't more to show for it than a simple GCE.

In 1960, Junior met a sixteen-year-old woman named Rosemarie and the two began a very deep and intense relationship, considering they were both still teenagers. On a summer holiday one year later, the couple discussed what Junior would do with the rest of his life and decided he needed a pseudonym so that he could be judged on his own merits instead of his family ties. Junior and Rosemarie then settled on Sven Simon as a cool alias. Perhaps all of this was only meant as a joke, but a few months later things got serious.

That's when Junior informed his father Rosemarie was now of legal age and that he intended to marry her. Springer Senior felt this was a rash decision and will certainly have pointed out that he knew what he was talking about, considering he was about to enter into his fourth marriage. But Junior stood up to his old man and, some shouting bouts later, was told to close the door from the outside and never return.

All of this was, as you'll later see, not quite as melodramatic and epic as it's sometimes been made out to be - which is to say it's not as biblical as the Dassler family strife we've covered before in this here space. Still, it meant Junior was now on his own and had to find a career after all. He had little choice but to turn his hobby into a profession - photography. And that's how we got Sven Simon, the snapper.

Though "snapper" is not a fitting term. Junior, or rather: Sven Simon, did more than just take snapshots. He had that rare knack of making every picture seem intimate, which quickly earned him steady work for people's magazines that loved his portraits (even though, at first, no Springer publication would buy his stuff).

Yet society portraits are not what Sven Simon became best known for.

That was football pictures. He had made the first, tentative steps into sports photography during the 1960 Olympics, when he was still Axel Junior and worked as a dogsbody for one of his father's photographers. A few years later, this field of expertise would make Sven Simon famous.

"Simon was probably at his creative peak in 1970 and, with a team of photographers around him, his material from this World Cup is of uniquely high quality," Doug Cheeseman wrote some years ago in "When Saturday Comes", adding: "His photo of Pelé, held up by Jairzinho as he punches the air, is the most famous of that tournament."

That's true, but it was a different World Cup that made Sven Simon, namely the 1966 one. That was the year he founded the Sven Simon Picture Agency (hence the "group of photographers" Cheeseman refers to) together with his friend and colleague Kurt Kühne and took many impressive pictures during the tournament in England.

It was a stroke of luck that the 1966 World Cup turned out to be such a memorable and also controversial tournament that it spawned its own sub-genre of books, articles, debates, conspiracy theories. As early as 1967, Sven Simon published a photo book which was called "Das Tor des Jahrhunderts" and dealt only with the final. The "goal of the century" which the title references was, of course, England's third and the book was meant to not just document the contest - but prove the ball never crossed the line.

In one of those strange twists of fate life seems to specialise in, Sven Simon's growing fame as a journalist ultimately ruined the love that had started it all. He had become a sports photographer so that he could marry Rosemarie, but by the early 1970s, the two were divorced because of his job. "Football destroyed our family life", Simon said at the time.

It wasn't the divorce, however, that led to a reconciliation with his father, this had happened much earlier. In 1968, Simon had signed a notarially certified document in which he forfeited all legals claims to his dad's empire (in return for a sizeable amount of money, of course) and perhaps this eased the tension. In 1971, his friend Kühne talked Simon into returning to the Springer fold and for the next eight years he worked for this father, even briefly editing the noted non-tabloid Sunday paper "Welt am Sonntag".

The book shows off the photo voted Germany's best of the century
SoccernetThe book shows off the photo voted Germany's best of the century
Then, on Christmas Eve 1979, Rudi Dutschke died from health problems to be traced back to the assassination attempt a dozen years earlier. His burial date was set for January 3, 1980. At two o'clock in the morning on that day, Sven Simon, whom everybody now called Axel Springer Junior again, took his Labrador for a walk along the Alster in Hamburg. At some point, he sat down on a snowy bench not too far from his home and pulled out the Smith & Wesson he was allowed to carry because he was a Springer and thus a potential target for terrorists or criminals. Nobody heard the shot and he was found only when a pale sun finally rose over the horizon.

Junior didn't leave a note, so we don't know why he killed himself. Some say he was depressive and had never gotten over the fact his marriage with Rosemarie hadn't worked out. Others point to an overpowering father. According to the German version Wikipedia, Rudi Dutschke's widow is convinced the day of the suicide was no accident. She thinks Junior was making a grand gesture, was giving his life to atone for the sins of his father.

This seems too theatrical, though, considering Junior by then enjoyed a good relationship with Senior and even adored his dad's fifth wife, Elfriede. (Known as Friede, which means "peace".) In any case, the suicide hit Springer Senior very hard and he became increasingly reclusive. As Junior's friend Claus Jacobi wrote: "With the son's death began the father's dying."

Almost eighteen years after his death, Sven Simon's name suddenly and strangely made headlines again. It all had to do with a photo he had taken on the day of the 1966 World Cup final. It was then named as the sports photo of the year and would later also be voted Germany's sports photo of the century. The picture shows West Germany captain Uwe Seeler leaving the pitch, staring at the ground.

For more than three decades, this image symbolised the German defeat. But then, in late 1997, a German football magazine drew attention to a strange detail - the marching band visible in the picture. It wouldn't have been on the pitch after the game, went the theory, but it played during the half-time break. And thus, the magazine argued, we had been wrong all those years and Sven Simon took the picture after the first 45 minutes.

The one man who would have known, Axel Junior, was dead. Seeler himself quickly came round to the new theory and said his head may have been bent because he was, get this, checking his shoelaces. And so the most bizarre of debates went on for four years, during which books and magazine pieces taught the new mantra, namely that the photo was not taken after the end of the final.

It was only in late 2001 that the matter was finally cleared. On the occasion of a Seeler exhibition in Hamburg, a noted journalist published a piece called "Wembley's Last Secret" and said painstaking research had proven that the photo was indeed taken after the final whistle.

 	Discussions between two Germanies led by E. German PM Willi Stoph (L) & W. German Chancellor Willy Brandt, May 21 1970
GettyImagesThis photo, of the chancellors of the two Germanies in 1970, was taken by none other than Sven Simon.
Now, I've got nothing against painstaking research, but the whole controversy was, like I said, supremely bizarre. First, a simple viewing of the official World Cup film, "Goal!", would have told you that the marching band did play on the pitch while the England players ran their lap of honour.

Second, a detail of that photo was printed in Simon's 1967 book, "Goal of the Century". The text next to the picture reads: "The setting sun is casting long shadows." Indeed. Those shadows tell you the photo must have been taken very late in the afternoon and that half-time is totally out of the question.

There you have it. A picture that is voted sports photo of the century - and people don't even really look at it. You wonder what Junior would have thought about that. He once told Jacobi that making it as the photographer Sven Simon, without any support from the Springer clan, was "the third most important thing" in his life. Adding: "After breathing in and breathing out."