The ultimate grudge match

The legendary Bill Shankly once drolly summed up how important football had become: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” There are very few occasions when football lives up to this quote and is literally a matter of life and death, but a game played in Kiev’s Zenit stadium on 9 August 1942 truly lived up to its billing. The ‘Death Match’ between the Ukrainian and German teams became symbolic of the brutality of Nazi occupation and a mythic totem of the spirit of resistance.

On a sunny weekday, the Zenit stadium is an oasis of calm in the middle of a high rise residential quarter. It is located in the north-west of Kiev’s central suburbs, sandwiched between the Staroobryadnyts’ke cemetery to the east and Zoopark to the west. It is at the heart of an academic quarter, close to the Politekhnichnyi instytut and the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. The running track that surrounds the football pitch is almost as well used as the pitch.

A football match - Nazi style

The stadium itself has seen better days, with rotting planks making up the benches of the terraces and the main building crumbling and peeling. Although worn by age, the pitch has its charms. The stadium is lined by handsome, broad and mature trees. Some have grown enthusiastically into the terraces, lending an unexpected sylvan aspects as if the stadium has been hewn from a forest glade.

In the 1930s, the stadium was a brand new expression of the Soviet dedication to healthy workers’ pursuits. Football was active, collective and dynamic; in short, it was the perfect communist sport. Unencumbered by bourgeois pretensions, football was a working man’s game and it became fantastically popular throughout the ‘worker’s paradise’ of the USSR.

If possible, football was even more popular in Ukraine than in the rest of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s strongest team of the 1930s was Dynamo Kyiv, with the team finishing fourth in the national league in 1938. They had failed to repeat this success in 1939 and 1940, but were hopeful that their fortunes would reverse in the 1941 league.

Zenat Stadium, Kiev

Dynamo Kyiv’s fans would never find out if revival was possible; Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR, would soon see Nazi soldiers invade Ukraine and the football league was quickly and unceremoniously cancelled. Players more used to battling on the pitch in front of cheering crowds were drafted into the Red Army; their physical fitness made them ideal troops.

By 1942, the German Wehrmacht had mercilessly demonstrated the overwhelming power of its surprise attack by rolling back Soviet forces into Russia. The Baltic States, Byelorussia and Ukraine were all completely overrun and the ancient heart of the Russian people, Kiev, lay in enemy hands. The Germans were convinced that this speedy conquest was the first stage in a process that would be followed by occupation and ultimately colonisation. They were keen to re-establish a sense of normality and, more importantly, encourage production. What better way to do this than by tapping into the Ukrainian mania for football?

The smoking ruins of a captured city - Kiev in the aftermath of the German assault - See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most successful local teams was the team from Kiev’s Bakery Number 3. It wasn’t just the availability of food that kept the bakery boys in prime position; they were largely comprised of professional players from the glory days of Dynamo Kyiv. After being enlisted into the Red Army, they had been overwhelmed by the rapid advance of the Wehrmacht and eventually surrendered to the Germans following the unsuccessful defence of Kiev.

A short spell in the Darnytsia Camp saw a group of players categorised in the most harmless group and released to go home. A return to normal life was impossible; the players were unemployed, homeless and starving. They found work in Bakery Number 3 and started to dream again about playing football.

In the bleak and hungry months of 1942, a new football team was formed. FC Start comprised eight players from Dynamo Kyiv (Mykola Trusevych, Mykhailo Svyridovskiy, Mykola Korotkykh, Oleksiy Klymenko, Fedir Tyutchev, Mykhailo Putistin, Ivan Kuzmenko, Makar Honcharenko) and three players from Lokomotiv Kyiv (Volodymyr Balakin, Vasyl Sukharev and Mykhailo Melnyk). In the new world of local leagues, they were a giant force with unmatched talent.

Players from FC Start in a photograph with the opposing side

FC Start’s first major issue was whether to play at all. By supporting the Nazi’s normalisation programme, were they collaborating? This was not merely a matter of patriotism – in a USSR dominated by Stalin’s paranoia, a simple act of playing a game of football could easily amount to treason and death. The team decided to overcome their qualms by playing on behalf of the conquered people. To burnish their Soviet and communist credentials, they played in red.

Trusevych and Putsin had found a stash of red football jerseys in an abandoned warehouse. “We do not have weapons,” Trusevich told them, “but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch … for a while the members of Dynamo and Zheldor (Locomotive) will be playing in one color, the color of our flag. The Fascists should know that this color cannot be defeated.” And so it came to pass – FC Start were never defeated.

As FC Start began to take on teams assembled by the occupying forces, it was clear that they were an impressive force. They smashed the Hungarian Garrison 6 – 2 and quickly asserted their dominance by crushing the Romanians 11 – 0. Other German and Hungarian teams would face similarly convincing defeats as FC Start enjoyed a glorious first season.

A poster advertising the rematch between FC Start and Flakelf - the German refers to the 'revenge' match

One of the most bitter defeats for the Germans was the 5 – 1 defeat of Flakelf on 6 August 1942. The 11 (elf) of the the German Luftwaffe team (Flak) were enraged and demanded a rematch. This time, German pride was on the line and everything would be done to defeat and dominate the upstart Ukrainians.

Both before the match and during half time, FC Start were visited by senior members of the German occupation forces. Their skill was acknowledged along with the realpolitik that their victory this time was not acceptable. They were asked, for their own personal safety, to throw the match. The consequences of them refusing to comply were clear to everyone. The Ukrainians decided to play on and play for victory whatever the consequences.

It was a tense and close game, with both teams enjoying periods in the lead. Flakelf took an early lead after a series of physical challenges on the FC Start goalkeeper were ignored by the SS Officer presiding as the referee. Despite the biased decisions and overlooking of German fouls, FC Start pulled back one, then two and finally three goals by half time.

Both teams scored one each in the second half, but it was clear to the Germans that the Ukrainians had decided to fight on to win the game. With the final score a humiliating 5 – 3 to the Ukrainians, the Germans would have to satisfy themselves with the unsporting thought of exacting terrible revenge later on.

On 18 August nine of FC Start players were arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. They were followed by two more teammates. One of the arrested players, Mykola Korotkykh, died under torture. The other, Oleksander Tkachenko, was shot during an alleged escape attempt.

The others ended up in the Syrets labour camp. Some of the players never emerged – Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksiy Klymenko, and Mykola Trusevych were executed there in February 1943. Survivors of German brutality included Fedir Tyutchev, Mykhailo Sviridovskiy and Makar Honcharenko, who managed to escape from the Syrets labour camp and tell their amazing story. It soon became a popular theme of Soviet propaganda.

Monument to FC Start - an heroic player crushes a German eagle

Of course, like any story used for propaganda, the Death Match soon acquired its own mythology. Stories circulated that the Ukrainian players faced not only a hostile referee but pot shots from the crowd. Other historians are convinced that, whilst the match took place, many of the details and supposed consequences were fabricated – a wartime fairy story.

Whilst the details may have been embellished and the truth is lost to both time and poor memory, it still remains one of the most remarkable encounters of the German occupation of Ukraine and a testament to the importance of football in many societies.