A match where there was no escape

Truth and fiction collide here in this legend. Can you imagine a team with Pele, Bobby Moore, Ozzy Ardiles and Mike Summerbee losing a match? The film ‘Escape to Victory’ has these heroes being forced into a draw by the cheating Nazi command. However, the basis for this film is even stranger than the script suggests. Football is a sport that can be used to unite communities against a common enemy or to prove one’s superiority over them. I am going to recount a match that was a metaphor for a nation’s struggle. It was known as ‘The Death Match’.

When the Nazi war machine rumbled into Soviet-occupied Ukraine it knew it could not maintain the cruelty of the savage siege that forced Kiev to crumble. It was prudent to allow the residents to continue living freely with sporting and cultural activities to enhance the ambience. In pre-war Kiev the local team, Dynamo Kiev, were extremely successful. They rivalled the teams in Moscow and the Ukrainian SSR were generous benefactors, such was Ukrainian pride. This passion for Dynamo created myths and legends in both the Soviet regime and the occupying force.

Footballing factory teams

Football can boost morale when food and nutrition are in short supply. Teams had been disbanded and those who survived the fighting returned to Kiev to find work. The bread factory had a director who was a football fan and he offered Nikolai Trusevich a job. He was Dynamo’s pre-war goalkeeper. This factory employed nine former professional players and with a chef, a guard, and three former policemen, the factory had a team approved called FC Start. These proud Ukrainian compatriots started to play and win.

On the other side of town, another team was formed. Its player body consisted of supporters of the Nazi-controlled government. FC Ruch were essentially Nazi sympathizers. Football was meant to be another tool in the Nazi Propaganda machine. FC Start’s winning strength made the German forces take note. They crushed Ruch 7-2 and they battered the local Hungarian garrison’s team 7-1. The Germans sent a team of “Invincibles” to crush the non-Aryan Ukrainians.

The team not to beat

Flakelf FC was the German airforce’s team. They were hand-picked by propaganda minister  Hermann Göring himself. Forbidden to see any fighting the Luftwaffes engineers, gunners, and pilots were some of Germany’s finest footballers. They were supposed to propagate the Nazi myth of superiority.

On August 6 1942, Start destroyed the Flakelf 5-1. How could these men lose to a group of red-shirted local men? This was not supposed to happen. Start’s players seemed to have defied the orders to throw the match and Flackelf demanded a rematch three days later. The poster advertising the clash has the words “revenge” written in Cyrillic letters. This seemed to indicate the importance of a Nazi victory.

The Revenge Match

With over 2000 people paying five roubles, there must have been much tension at the Zenit stadium. It is hard to unpick the facts from the fiction here as this match was used as a propaganda tool by both the Nazi regime and the Soviet administration. At half-time, Flakelf were 3-1 up. It may have been due to the huge military presence at the stadium or the oversight of the referee. Maybe the threats from the Nazis had hit home and “only Germans can win” would be true.

Start’s superiority was undeniable and they played as if they were fighting a battle. They came back and won the match 5-3. It was reported that the players were taken to Babi Yar, just north of Kiev, and murdered. This ravine had seen some 33,771 Jews murdered in two days the previous year so that story was credible. The match became known as “The Death Match”.

There were certainly no more matches between locals and Nazis. On August 18 1942, all the Start players were arrested. Those suspected of collaborating with the Russian secret police remained under arrest. They just happened to be former Dynamo players. It is claimed that the former Lokomotiv players were released. One thing for sure is that the Nazi’s feared the strength of the Communists and were cracking down on anyone who they suspected of cooperating with the NDVK.

What became of the players?

Olexander Tkachenko, one of the former police officers, was shot when struggling against his arrest. Mikola Korotkykh, a chef, was tortured to death for being a suspected NDVK worker. There is no mention of their participation in the “Death Match”, just evidence of their status as enemies of the Nazi regime.

Eight players were sent to Syrets concentration camp near Babi Yar. Nikolai Trusevich, Olexi Klimenko, and Ivan Kuzmenko were forced to work as street builders. Pavlo Komarov, Mikhail Putistin and Fedor Tyutchev were forced to work as electricians. Makar Honcharenko and Mikhailo Sviridovsky were forced to work as cobblers for the Nazi army. They spent their nights at the camp.

Trusevich, Klimenko, and Kuzmenko were later executed on February 24 1943. The reasons cited were for insurrections at the camp and nothing to do with the eponymous match. Further mystery was added as the Soviets liberated Ukraine and took the details of this saga and used it in their own propaganda machine.

There is a memorial to these talented and plucky players in Kiev. Whatever the reality the notion of a team of malnourished partisans defeating the Nazis on a symbolic battlefield remains enigmatic. It’s easy to see why Hollywood would have wanted to tell a version of this legend. Football is a language that speaks to us all and it is the personification of a struggle whether on a local level or a global one.