In July 1981, film director John Huston produced a movie that would garner great attention upon its theatrical release. Escape to Victory, set in France during WWII, would see a group of once great football player turned prisoners of war agree to take on a German side chosen by the occupying Nazi party in a one off match.
This film would consist of a star studded cast including Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow and Sylvester Stallone alongside professional footballers Pele, John Wark and Bobby Moore, to name a few.
Though a box office success, many do not know of the real event that inspired John Huston to make this movie as it is one that also took place during WWII in a game that is still known to this day as ‘The Death Match’.
Occupation and Nazi rule
In September 1941, Hitler and his Nazi forces began to set their eyes on invading the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s capital of Kyiv just three months after invading the Soviet Union. After a bloody siege that lasted 72 days, Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv would finally fall at the hands of the Nazis’ Wehrmacht forces, bringing to an end the Soviet rule of Ukraine.
Upon Nazi declaration as the new rulers of the city, Major General Friedrich – Georg Eberhardt would realise that the population of the city would be too great to police. This observation would result in the Nazi government allowing Eberhardt to organise events that would incorporate sports into the day to day lives of the local people, as a way to not appear as the brutal tyrants that they really were.
From Bread to Ball
Around the time of the Nazi invasion of Kyiv, a Czech sports enthusiast named Joseph Kordik would find himself appointed to a director role at the Kyiv Bread factory, owned by a die hard Dynamo Kyiv fan and football enthusiast.
It would be here that Kordik would meet former Dynamo Kyiv goalkeeper, Nikolai Trusevich, who before joining the bread factory had made a living by selling lighters now that his days as a footballer were seen as over.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they disbanded many of the top teams in Ukraine and Russia, mainly due to their sponsorships coming from members of the NKVD – The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. The NKVD were an interior policing ministry of the Soviet Union.
As a result of this disbanding, Trusevich would be joined at the bread factory by three of his old Dynamo Kyiv teammates and a few former players from other clubs such as Lokomotiv Kyiv and Spartak Odessa. In total, nine former players worked at the Kyiv Bread factory.
To continue their love of the game, and as a way to pass time outside of work, the former players founded a new team called FC Start and had the backing of their boss and newly appointed director, who were two football enthusiasts.
As well as the nine former players, the team consisted of a chef, a guard and three former policemen who now all worked at the bread factory.
The ‘Invincibles’ of FC Start
Around the time of FC Start’s founding, a fellow football fan in the form of Major General Eberhardt would come up with a suggestion that would see football matches played between local sides and teams consisting of soldiers from Germany, Hungary and Romania in a competition format.
Upon hearing this news, the bakery owner decided to enroll the newly formed team in the competition as, unlike the amateur squads of the Hungarian and Romanian teams, FC Start consisted mainly of ex-professional footballers.
Despite the team consisting of ex-pros, many of the amateur sides felt that they were superior so expected nothing but victory against the ‘inferior’ Ukrainian side. In order to show their ‘sportsmanship’ the Nazis promised that the team would be granted professional training equipment and time as they had been inactive for a year or two but still knew a thing or two when it came to the beautiful game.
One player, Ivan Kuzmenko, had a reputation for using a ball three times heavier than a regular one just for practice, as this allowed him to have incredible power when shooting in a game, so much so that his efforts caused keepers to duck in fear.
The Nazi members and fellow Nazi sympathising teams in the competition were clueless when it came to the background of the FC Start players, and it would be this naivety that the team would expose to surprise their opponents. In their first game, FC Start would win 6-2 against members of the Hungarian garrison regiment and seven days later demolish the Romanian regiment team 11-0.
News of these results would begin to reach the local newspapers, who would spread the word of this ‘invincible’ football team who were defying the tyrannical Nazi regime and its propaganda machine. The team would attract much attention also due to the cardinal red of their jerseys, which many saw as a way of spiting the Nazis with red being the colour associated with Communism.
Further victories against a team of German soldiers (6-0) and another Hungarian team, who were considered better than the previous (5-1) saw FC Start gain a reputation for not only winning games, but dismantling their opponents in the process.
With each passing victory, more resources would be withdrawn by the Nazi organisers resulting in the team becoming more and more malnourished. This would be seen in a requested rematch by the Hungarian side, which they would still end up losing to the Ukrainian side but only 3-2 this time around.
Flakelf & Nazi embarrassment
News of this little, malnourished Ukrainian side that was dismantling every opponent they played against soon garnered the attention of the Nazi occupiers, who now felt that the time was right to send their best team, who were also considered invincible, in order to bring to a halt the momentum of this FC Start side.
This elite German side, known as Flakelf FC, would consist of pure Aryan Luftwaffe engineers, gunners and pilots who had all been hand picked by the Nazi propaganda minister himself, Hermann Göring.
Göring would personally supervise the Flakelf team, as he saw a victory against this immovable FC Start side as a way to promote the Nazi myth of superiority. This commitment to the propaganda machine meant that he forbade any of the Flakelf players from being sent to the battlefront as they were amongst Germany’s most talented footballers.
On August 6th, 1942, FC Start would go on to demolish this handpicked Flakelf side 5 – 1 in what would be seen as a major blow to the Nazi’s notion of ‘German superiority’, which had now been brought into question after defeat at the hands of a malnourished team of inferiors in their eyes.
With their pride hurt and feeling embarrassed, the Nazi officials now had to make a choice of whether they should murder the FC Start players or demand a rematch and go all out to win. A decision was made that a rematch would be the more pragmatic approach, as murdering the players risked turning them into martyrs and, at the same time, would discredit the German sportsmanship that had been constantly promoted by the Nazi propaganda machine.
The ‘Death Match’
After a rematch had been agreed to take place between the two sides three days after the first meeting, several new recruits would join the Flakelf in order to further strengthen the side against the further weakened, yet heroic, FC Start side.
Further measures were also taken for the match with the attendance fee being raised to 5 roubles per person, which was not a small sum at the time, and newspaper coverage cancelled. However, despite this increase in match fee, the crowds still came to the Kyiv Zenit Stadium, to will this brave underdog Ukrainian side on against the team seen as the representation of German occupancy.
On the 9th of August, the rematch would commence, but this time with a Nazi officer as the ref, and it showed as the rough play of Flakelf would result in FC Start’s goalkeeper being knocked unconscious in the box.
With a now concussed goalkeeper between the sticks, Flakelf would score three goals to go into halftime leading 3-1. Things would get even more dismal for the Ukrainian side as a halftime locker room visit from Major General Eberhardt himself would see the team threatened with execution should they not decide to throw the game against the German side.
Whether it was sheer determination or just outright pride for their country, FC Start would come out in the second half, with a now conscious goalkeeper, and show their superiority on the pitch by coming back to win 5-3. Some reports at the time claim that crammed spectators began to chant anti-Nazi slogans and patriotic songs in solidarity as a way to show the pride they had for the brave Ukrainian side.
This would be the last time FC Start would play a football match as on the 18th of August 1942, nine days after the rematch, many of the players would be arrested on various charges with most being accused of being NKVD agents.
In the coming months, the players of the FC Start side would face various outcomes in the aftermath of their incredible victories over the German side. Olexander Tkachenko, one of the three former policemen on the team, would be shot dead after struggling against his arrest nine after the rematch.
Mikola Korotkykh, the chef, was arrested and tortured to death after Nazi officials found out he was an active NKVD member. Both of these players are not mentioned as participants in the match, but only as enemies of the Nazi regime.
Eight of the remaining players were arrested and sent to Syrets concentration camp, near Babi Yar, where they were assigned jobs but spent their nights in the camp. Former Dynamo Kyiv goalkeeper, Nikolai Trusevich, and three of his teammates were forced to work as street builders, before later being executed on February 24th, 1943 for reasons that are said to be classed as ‘insurrections at the camp’.
Three other members of the team, who were sent to the camp, were forced to work as electricians and two others would see themselves assigned to work as cobblers for the Nazi army.
The remaining members of the team who were not sent to the Syret camp were later executed by the Nazis with the circumstances leading to their deaths remaining unknown to this day. However, many believe it was a case of the players being blacklisted due to their part in a team that embarrassed the Nazi propaganda machine and Aryan myth.
In 1964, some of the team were awarded medals of honour, with others given medals of service posthumously due to their participation in the ‘Death Match’, a phrase coined by a newspaper at the time called the Izvestia in 1943 after all the deaths and arrests that followed the game.
A statue to commemorate these brave men was erected in 1971 outside the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium, it depicts the figures of four football players as a sign of the bravery and heroics they showed against the Nazi occupation.
The aftermath of the ‘Death Match’ remains shrouded in some mystery due to the details of the event being used by the Soviets for their own propaganda machine, after they liberated Ukraine in October 1944.
Despite the mysterious aspects of this story, this match remains one of the most politically charged games in history and is a sign of bravery in the face of adversity where Ukrainian patriotism dealt a huge blow to the Nazis and their Ayrian superiority ideals.
This is the story of how a malnourished, yet a heroic team of ex-professional footballers defeated the immovable Nazi propaganda machine in my opinion, it is a tale that should be told to this day.