When people think of the Nazis and football, most would think of Escape to Victory, the film in which Bobby Moore, Michael Caine and Pele, Prisoners of War, play for the pride of the allies and draw, carried out of the stadium on the shoulders of the oppressed French citizens to a jingoistic, triumphant soundtrack. Fewer people know that it was inspired by a match in the Ukraine between the occupied and the occupiers. What Escape does not show is half the team being executed for defying their conquerors. That is the dark secret of the Death Match. At least, that’s what we’ve all been told.
When it comes to the Death Match, facts are hard to come by, myths are prevalent, and history is murky. For the Nazis, murdering football players for winning a match they were supposed to lose seems plausibly evil. For the Soviet Union, who reconquered the country and imposed strict media laws, the Death Match was used as propaganda for the spirit of Communism. The survivors and witnesses, fearful of both sides, were not forthcoming with their testimonies for many years. Neither regime kept good records of their doctoring of history, that would defeat the point of the exercise. So we have to put together the snippets of truth we can find and build up the story. The Death Match happened, but just how deadly it was is up for debate.
First, a little background. As the Ukraine was invaded, sports associations were disbanded and the traditional football clubs were outlawed. Players instead took up jobs under the German occupiers. Nikolai Trusevich, the legendary Dynamo Kiev goalkeeper, was offered a job at the city’s Bread Factory No. 1, and over time was joined by a number of other former players – producing food for the Reich was one way to ensure you received enough of it. Three former Dynamo players ended up at the factory, along with six others from clubs across the city. All that talent in one place, eventually the Nazi occupiers relented and allowed football to be played once more, albeit in new teams. FC Start was born in the bread factory, and would prove to be something of a force in the game.
At the same time, clubs were popping up across the city. FC Ruch founder Georgi Shvetsov attempted to attract the former Dynamo players to his team, his factory, but as a collaborator found short shrift from the Start players. They were subsequently humiliated 7-2 when they met the boys from the bread factory.
It wasn’t just Ruch that were put to the sword, however. The team from the Hungarian garrison were beaten 6-2, and they racked up a 7-1 scoreline against a German artillery side. The Nazis sent their most formidable side, Flakelf, to put the Ukrainians in their place. Flakelf were the Luftwaffe side, personally overseen by Hermann Goering who excused the players from more arduous military duty to maintain their invincibility. They were a propaganda dream for the superiority of the Aryan race, and they were sent to put Start back in their place.
The match took place on 6th August 1942, and Start continued their dominance beating the Germans 5-1 and ending the myth of Flakelf’s invincibility. Unwilling to accept defeat to inferior opposition, they arranged a rematch for three days later. It is at half-time in that second match that the facts dry up and the myths take their place.
3-1 up at half time, it was rumoured for decades that the German SS had stormed into the Start dressing room and pressurised the Ukrainians to throw the game. Much like the match in Escape to Victory, there is a common understanding of a subdued, frightened crowd, and a pitch surrounded by jackbooted thugs with guard dogs. This may not have been the case. Flakelf came strongly into the second half, finding an equaliser, before a late show from Start saw the Ukrainians defy their orders to win 5-3.
Some accounts say that the crowd stormed the pitch to celebrate with their players, who were seen to represent Communism against the Fascist invaders. This seems unlikely, given the security in place, even if it was not the whole army ready to react. Another account has suggested that a few of the players were summarily executed for disobeying orders – what documentary evidence there is tells us that isn’t true either. The Start players definitely survived the night. They even had a picture taken with the Flakelf side on the pitch after the game.
What we do know is that seven days after that rematch Start beat Ruch 8-0, and on August 18th, the Start players were arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned. Former Lokomotiv Kiev players were released, but others were kept in on suspicion of working for the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. When the Nazis discovered that one of the players, Mikola Korotkykh was indeed a Soviet spy, he was tortured to death. Olexander Tkachenko was shot supposedly trying to escape. Start players suggested they had been set up by Georgi Shvetsov, in retaliation for repeatedly defeating his side.
The rest of the players were eventually sent to a concentration camp outside Kiev, where three more would be murdered, alongside a number of non-footballers. Reasons given for their execution vary, but in the end, in the concentration camp, there didn’t need to be a major infraction to be killed. The most logical explanation, given the mass execution, is that it was to set an example to the other prisoners, either as reprisal for an escape attempt or some sabotage. The survivor’s stories were not told for decades as the Soviet Union tried to turn the players into heroes of resistance. All players were awarded medals at the end of the war.
When the surviving players were eventually heard, their explanations never blame football for the deaths of their friends. It is true that following Flakelf’s defeat, matches between Germans and occupied teams were forbidden to avoid embarrassment, but German sides had lost many matches throughout the war. German defeats were reported in German newspapers. It is more likely that the Nazis became aware of Korotkykh’s ties to the NKVD, and his friends were rounded up as a consequence. That the mass execution occurred around the same time as the Nazis surrendered in Stalingrad, their first military defeat in the east, is noteworthy, but no real connection between the two has been proven.
The Death Match, and its surrounding events, provides us with many questions, and few answers. It is highly probably that we will never know why the players of FC Start were arrested and executed, save for the fact that they were caught in the middle of the world’s deadliest conflict. One thing we can be fairly certain of, however, is that the Death Match did not earn its name, tragic as the events around it were.