Football’s ‘Death Match’: Of pride and honour, of life and death

This August marked the 69th anniversary of probably the most despicable and dastardly moment in football history, a day that has haunted people, young and old, from Kiev for generations. Yet, this is a tale not widely known outside of the Soviet states apart from the movies made on the tragic events of Kiev. Its a story of footballers from Kiev(predominantly from Dynamo Kiev) who defeated Nazi Germany. Its about the tragedy that struck these footballers who were cruelly killed by the Nazi’s, all for what? For beating Nazi football teams and challenging the might and the sense of superiority of the Nazi’s.

A monument in honour of the players who played the ill-fated ‘Death Match’.

The Beginning

It all dates back to the summer of 1942 when the Nazi regime overthrew the Stalin regime in the city of Kiev. Stalin for long had supressed the Ukranians for his fear that Ukraine might seperate out of his huge communist empire, hence resorting to terrorising the nationalists but even Stalin hadn’t forseen what was going to happen. In June 1941, the Nazi forces invaded and took control of Kiev in attempt to decimate the Russian empire eventually resorting to malevolent attrocities on the people. The local football scene had been completely decimated by the new forces forcing most footballers to work in other industries.

And in an attempt to entice the locals to themselves the Nazis decreed to host a football tournament where a number of teams entered, one among them were the ill-fated FC Start, comprising predominantly of former Dynamo Kiev footballers who had been right up there in the Soviet League before the Nazi invasion. And the bunch that they had were so supremely talented that they swept apart every other team in the land, winning hearts of the people- young and old. Led by Nikolai Trusevich, the team had almost begun to act as the protagonists of a nationalist movement in their own right.

With no real opposition left for FC Start, the German forces decided to buckle their upswing as they were invited to play the highly trained German Military side, PGS. Underprepared and possibly starved, nobody really gave FC Start a chance for the game. But what unfolded was magical as Start tore apart the Military outfit PGS 6-0, despite the hardships that had been endured on the players by the Nazis. Things went from bad to worse for the occupiers when FC Start destroyed a fancied Hungarian outfit, MSG Wal 5-1 on the Sunday immediately following the Friday they had put six goals past PGS. Eleven goals in two games! FC Start won the re-match against MSG Wal a week later, 3-2. The Ukrainian team was on a roll. The German authorities could stand it no longer. They stepped in.

Stung and humiliated, this had come as a bitter blow to the German authorities as the revolution surrounding FC Start, by now called the ‘people’s champions’, had started to grow. And once again the Nazi propoganda machine swung into action as FC Start were again forced to play a side made up by German Luftwaffe pilots, called Flakelf, on Thursday 6th August 1942. The Germans had anticipated an easy victory to limit FC Start’s popularity but that was not to be as once again FC Start thumped the German team 5-1, the crowd in raptures in adulation of their heroes.

The stinging defeat had been like a dagger to the egos of the Nazi Army, this loss represented an affront to all that the German occupation had stood-for. The Nazi’s had become even more adamant on proving that they were the dominant and the superior race, how could they have lost to a team that had been starved? How could they have lost to a team that hadnt trained for weeks? How could they have tolerated a loss to the team that epitomized the Ukranian people’s resistance? And they did not, a re-match was organised for August 9, the ill fated day for Football’s ‘Death Match’.

Pamphlet for the ‘Death Match

The day of the Death Match

The location- Kiev’s Zenit stadium, the date- August 9, 1942. A massive Ukranian crowd surrounded by German forces in the Ukranian colosseum cheering the people’s champions FC Start, who were going to play the biggest and the ironically as fate would have it, the last game of their lives. In the dressing room before the match, an SS officer had ordered the players to greet the other side in the Nazi fashion, which meant giving the Nazi salute and shouting ‘Heil Hitler’. FC Start had been warned that another victory would have severe consequences for them, for the Nazi’s were not going to tolerate another defeat to a race they considered inferior. Winning just wasnt an option for FC Start…

“I am the referee of today’s game. I know you are a very good team. Please follow the rules, do not break any of the rules, and before the game, greet your opponents in our fashion.”

-The SS Officer communicating the message to FC Start in perfect Russian

Tired, starved, hungry, under trained, but yet the FC Start warriors lined up for the game in front of passionate supporters who identified with each one of the FC Start players. The stadium had been full but what the players might have been feeling would never be know. It was the moment of truth, here and now, and gradually, each player raised his arm, only to snap it back into their chests and shout ‘FitzcultHura’, which translates to ‘long live sport.’

Just as the game commenced the Germans resorted to thuggery on the pitch but despite the tackles flying the referee, a German sellout, continued refusing to see the most evident of fouls. The considerably fitter German team Flakelf went 1-0 ahead soon enough but the response from FC Start was immediate as they rallied back, outplaying their opponents once more, racing to a 3-1 lead at half time. The whistle had blown, and FC Start had in the first half openly defied the orders that the Nazi officers had given, they were up but werent supposed to be.

During half time, in their changing room, FC Start had two unwanted visitors in their dressing room. The first was Shvetsov, a Nazi collaborator, who advised them to throw in the match if they knew what was good for them. The second, another SS Officer, was more clear in his menace. He warned them of the severe consequences that would occur if they were to win. In the stadium meanwhile, the Nazi forces had already surrounded the pitch to prevent any rowdy supporters to stepping in.

The situation was grave and the atmosphere within the stadium had diluted in its exuberance, the second half was the last chance for FC Start to throw the game and let Nazi’s own team Flakelf win, and in doing so succumb their pride and honour to their force. The half itself turned out rather bland with both sides scoring a brace to take the score to 5-3 in favour of the Ukranians. But before it all came to a halt, FC Start’s Alexei Klimenko heaped the biggest and the final act of humiliation upon the Germans, he beat the defence, rounded the keeper but stopped the ball at the goal line and thumped it back upfield away from the goal, spurning his chance to score. This humiliation was going to be too big to swallow for the Nazis, Klimenko had single handedly embarrassed them as FC Start went on to win 5-3. They had decided to win for their fans and their community than to surrender to the threats of the opposition. The players had embodied the resistant that the people of Kiev could not against the Nazi attrocities, they were the face of a revolution, for they played and won not for themselves but for the people.

At full time, the atmosphere was anything but that of ecstasy, the players and fans had realized the enormity of their decision to refuse to bow to the Nazis. They had to be ready for repricussions, repricussions that would not be immediate but were going to be brutal and barbaric, for they had exposed the Nazi’s as the fake edifice that they always were during their annexation and the Nazis would not allow that to pass unchecked, they just wouldnt let go of this defeat to what they considered a team inferior to their’s.

And the massacre…

Almost as if nothing much had happened, there was one more fixture to play, on August 16th, against the nationalist team Rukh. FC Start continued their winning streak. They beat Rukh 8-0. Following that match, the Gestapo turned up at Bakery Number 3(where the players worked) with a list of players. Each named player at the bakery was arrested and driven to the secret police HQ in Korolenko Street. There they were interrogated under torture. The Gestapo wanted them to confess to being criminals or saboteurs. That way, they could be shot with some official justification. None of them cracked. But Nikolai Korotkykh, one of the players, was exposed as a former KNVD officer by his sister and was tortured to death by the Gestapo in Korolenko Street. He was the first fatal casualty of the Game of Death.

The remaining survivors were sent to the labour camp in Siretz, forced to live in inhuman conditions but what was to come changed everything, sport was going to be killed by a bunch of barbarians. At the camp three of their leading players were killed, among them were Alexei Klimenko, the player who had heaped the final humiliation upon the Germans by refusing to score, Ivan Kuzmenko who led the FC Start forward line and the figurehead, captain and goalkeeper of the team Nikolai Trusevich. Just before the lead bullets punctured through Trusevich’s head he proudly shouted “Stalin will return! Long live Soviet Sports!” before bundling down as the cold bullets pierced through his head and the body, but he died as he had lived, not on his knees but on his feet, in his keeper’s jersey .

Three other players Goncharenko, Tyutchev and Sviridovsky, were posted to do forced labour in the city in inhuman conditions, what fate the rest met has never been known.

“A desperate fight for survival started which ended badly for four players. Unfortunately they did not die because they were great footballers, or great Dynamo players… They died like many other Soviet people because the two totalitarian systems were fighting each other, and they were destined to become victims of that grand scale massacre.”

True heroes but their tales have long been supressed, Stalin led Soviet forces supressed their story for the fear that a national revolution may be born from the inspiration of these players who sacrificed their lives but did not bow down even to the might of the Nazis, standing up as the face of Ukranian resistance to the Nazi forces. Its all a story of these men, who won the match, won the hearts, but lost their lives to the Nazi troglodyte animals.

It wasn’t just football that lost, it was humanity that lost…

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