This article originally appeared in Issue 7 of The Football Pink which is available by clicking HERE
More goals than Pele, successful entrepreneur and one of his country’s greatest ever players. MARK GODFREY brings us the story of one of Germany’s earliest superstars.
Imagine a player who scored over 2,000 goals in a career that spanned a turbulent 25 year period in history. He captained his country, took part in the 1912 Olympics, saw military service in two World Wars and was a successful businessman. Quite a guy, right? Well, possibly and possibly not. So who is this man with the supposed extraordinary life and career? The answer - former German international and hero of Altona 93, Adolf Jäger.
Born on March 31st, 1889 in the Eimsbüttel district of Hamburg, located on the border with Altona (at that time a separate Prussian town), Jäger’s name is synonymous with the famous amateur football club Altona 93; not least since its stadium was renamed the Adolf-Jäger-Kampfbahn in his honour in 1944. Young Adolf was the son of a shoe salesman and early on during those very humble beginnings his sporting prowess was noted; not only was he a talented footballer but he also gained notoriety as a Rounders player. During his youth he formed a football team called ‘Germania’ in the area around his home in Kieler Strasse before, in 1903, he signed for his first ‘real’ club; the newly-formed SC Union 03 Altona. He remained there until he turned seventeen when a series of disagreements prompted him to leave and join the club where he would play a major part for the rest of his life and beyond.
According to Folkert Mohrhof, author of the book ‘Die Ära Adolf Jäger’, taking Jäger’s incredible amateur career statistics at face value (over 2,000 goals in around 700 games in total) requires somewhat of a leap of faith.
There are some things that are indisputable; he played 26 years (1907-33) for Altona 93 and was – and still is – the club’s most famous name, renowned for his skill and voracious appetite for scoring goals. These qualities brought him numerous team and personal awards including two winners’ medals from the North German championship and eight from the Hamburg-Altona championship. International recognition and 18 caps – ten as captain - for the German national side (all amateur at the time) followed; selection for the 1912 German Olympic football squad in Stockholm where he scored in their only game, a 5-1 first round defeat to Austria (the tournament was eventually won by Great Britain) and a penalty winner against the Hungarians in 1920 in front of a 55,000 strong crowd in Berlin are just two of the highlights of his time with the eagle on his chest. He also appeared 50 times for the representative team ‘Norddeutschland’.
Even after his final official amateur season in 1932-33 (when he also coached the Altona 93 team) he continued to play for several years in seniors (Alte Herren) games with many of his former colleagues and adversaries.
In 1927, at the age of 38, he was presented with the German government’s highest honour for excellence in sport – the Adler Plakette, and to rubberstamp his importance in the history of German football, the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung voted Jäger into their ‘Team of the Century’ in 1999.
However, there are plenty of reasons why Mohrhof is dubious about the claims made in relation to Jäger’s career. Firstly, the sheer amount of goals attributed to him is debatable, not least because records from the time are patchy and were often not kept at all. Secondly, official sources say that he spent four years in Belgium during the First World War and was reportedly wounded twice, yet, he supposedly continued to play for Altona 93 and Hamburg-Altona throughout the conflict. And let’s not forget, if the numbers are to be believed, Jäger would had to have been scoring on average three goals per game over a 26-year career right up to the age of 44; a feat that seems unlikely and unparalleled at any level and at any time in the history of the game.
Away from the pitch, Jäger’s life seems equally shrouded in a degree of mystery and contradiction. Despite being an ‘amateur’ it is widely accepted that he would have been paid for his playing services – for example, gate receipts from exhibition matches and friendlies - even though accepting money was strictly forbidden by the Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB). Top players in those days were regularly handed ‘gifts’ such as cars or even jobs in return for turning out for certain clubs.
On top of his ‘earnings’ from football, Jäger began to build a healthy business portfolio. In Altona, he opened a tobacconist shop shortly after the end of the First World War and in 1921 he went into partnership with Altona 93 team mate G.H.Koch. The pair owned the department store Jäger & Koch on Hermanstrasse, next to the Rathaus in the very heart of Hamburg, but once Koch moved to HSV in 1925, Jäger’s involvement ended. The shop remained open until 2000 (under different ownership) in a different location; Neuer Jungfernstieg by the Binnenalster Lake. Jäger’s business interests also crossed over into his sporting pursuits in 1928; he owned, or was involved with a small advertising agency that won the German rights to distribute photos from the Amsterdam Olympic Games of that year.
These sources of income are also a bone of contention for Mohrhof whose own investigations led him to believe that it was not possible for Jäger to play football twice a week and successfully run at least three businesses. These doubts beg the question; was he one of the first footballers to ‘lend’ his name and image to companies and products in order for them to gain weight from the association with such a famous sportsman? Mohrhof believes so and that he would have been handsomely rewarded for doing so. Strangely though, by 1929 Jäger was still listed in the Hamburg and Altona address directories as a ‘merchant representative’ yet he lived with his wife and son in a social housing flat in the vicinity of his first club, SC Union 03. This would indicate that Jäger was either no longer benefitting from the various business activities he once had been or that the economic situation had worsened significantly enough to seriously affect his lifestyle.
One can’t mention Germany and the 1930’s without the spectre of another Adolf – Hitler, obviously – and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) raising their ugly heads. What is unclear from Mohrhof’s research is whether or not Jäger had any known sympathies or affiliation with the Nazi Party. Altona 93 almost certainly did pledge allegiance to the fascist movement – as they would have felt obliged to – but while most German sportsmen of the time would have had right-thinking ideals, to embrace the concept of being a ‘true German’ wasn’t necessarily the same as being a fully-committed Nazi.
With his own incredible career behind him, ‘our’ Adolf’s only son Rolf – also a talented footballer - was expected to continue the family tradition and pull on the red, white and black jersey of Altona 93. Sadly, like for so many on both sides of the war, the fighting interfered with such ambitions. On June 10th 1944, just four days after D-Day, 22-year-old Rolf was killed near Le Mans, France during an Allied attack on a military airfield.
Obviously devastated, Jäger continued with his duties as a ‘Luftschutz-Polizist’ - an anti-aircraft defence officer in Hamburg. On November 21st 1944, five months after the loss of his son, Adolf himself perished during bomb disposal work at the Altona Fischmarkt on the banks of the Elbe River. His tomb can be found in the cemetery at Altonaer Volkspark, within earshot of the cheers from the stadium of Hamburger Sport Verein (HSV), one of Altona’s and Adolf’s great local rivals.
Looking back at what was undoubtedly an extraordinary life and football career, it’s impossible to ignore some of the conjecture that surrounds Adolf Jäger’s achievements. But whether or not he did actually accomplish all the feats he is renowned for is almost irrelevant; the fact that he remains such a hero to fans, not just of Altona, but all across Germany, proves that he must have been an incredible sportsman and a true icon of his time.
We would like to express our sincere thanks to Folkert Mohrhof, author of ‘Die Ära Adolf Jäger’ and Jan Stöver, editor of the Altona 93 fanzine ‘All To Nah’ for their assistance with the writing of this article.