Those die-hard football enthusiasts who eagerly watch all the live coverage of UEFA Champions League matches, often by spending sleepless nights, are aware of a Ukrainian football team Dynamo Kiev, which hails from Kiev, the capital city of the country. But only a few of them know about the striking history of the club and what happened to the players after they won a match convincingly against German Army Football Team when Nazis invaded the country during the Second World War.
Those Early days of Dynamo Kiev (Before Nazi Invasion)
This Kiev based club was founded in the year 1927 as an amateur team as a part of Dinamo, a nation wide Soviet Sports Society and later it became officially funded and sponsored by NKVD which was a Soviet Secret Agency. During the 1930's, Ukraine suffered terribly under the leadership of Stalin as he always feared a possibility of Ukrainian breakaway from the Soviet Union Empire. So, a special attention was given to suppress any possible nationalist movement which made the lives of thousands and thousands of inhabitants of Ukraine miserable. Each and every city was taken over by Soviet Secret Police and they used to look at every movement made by any citizen from a suspicious point of view. Innocent citizens were arrested, deported and often shot dead by them for committing mistakes which were as simple as arriving late at work or talking to the foreigners or for quarreling with neighbors etc. Even Ukrainian Government Officials and Police men were not spared from this hellish act. Moreover, Stalin's repressive Farming policy shattered the Ukrainian economy and led to a great famine for which 14 million Ukrainians lost their lives. So an atmosphere of fear, hatred and terror loomed large during those days and there was no ray of hope for the Ukrainians.
Football was like a breeze of fresh air in those days of uncertainties and insecurities. At that time, Football was very much popular a sporting activity in all over Soviet Union and it was easy for a citizen to book a football match ticket and to be engrossed with all the thrills and happenings of the match and to enjoy it's every possible moment . For them, it was like a temporary relief from a very tense situation, from the constant fear of deportation or execution. Then, the most popular clubs of Soviet Union were Dynamo Moscow and Spartak Moscow, two clubs from Moscow and in the field of Football, Ukrainians had something to cheer about – the achievements of Dynamo Kiev. Those fiercely contested matches played between Dynamo Kiev and those two clubs from Moscow were followed by a huge number of supporters and often they defeated the Moscow Clubs to win the Soviet Championship and also to break the Moscow Dominance in the football field. The matches played by Dynamo Kiev were not just mere games but they also involved National Pride. This club is often regarded as unofficial Ukrainian National Team by the Ukrainian Government and the team was funded by the Government. It participated in the first "Soviet Championship" played in 1936 and became second after fighting hard with all the tough opponents. In 1937 and 1938, they finished the championship in 3rd and 4th place respectively and in their 1938 they scored a record 76 goals which is quite an achievement considering the hardship they suffered and tough situation they endured. However they did not perform to their potential in the next two seasons (1939, 1940) and in the next season (1941) they were playing well as a unit till the 4th game but after that Nazi army invaded the whole Soviet Union on 22nd June , 1941.
Dynamo Kiev during Nazi Invasion
When the Soviet Union's Red Army lost in the battle with the Nazi's then some of the Dynamo Kiev players registered themselves in the army and were sent to the battlefield to fight for the country and rescue their land from foreign invasion. After 3 months of horrible bloodshed finally Nazis gained the full control over the city of Kiev. Those Dynamo players who were in the army were captured as "Prisoner of War" and sent to the Prison Camps. The Prison Camps were short of food and water and all the prisoners were forced to live in a very short enclosure earmarked by barbed wire fencing. After Kiev fell to the Germans, it witnessed a horrible scenario of devastation, death and destruction over a period of 1 year (which included the murder of 33,771 Jewish men, women and children in just 2 days, 29th and 30th September and by the end of 1941 over 100000 Ukrainians died either shot by the Nazi army or died of starvation). But some of Dynamo Kiev players were fortunate to be released from the prison camps and then they came back to the Kiev city in search of a job. From there onwards, Dynamo's story again started with a positive note.
Bakery Number 3
Iosif Kordik, a die-hard fan of Dynamo Kiev, was the manager of the huge Bakery Number 3, in Kiev when Nikolai Trusevich, the tall goalkeeper of the team came back to the city looking for a job and offered him a sweeper 's job in the shop. Those days those who were released from prison camps were not given any work permit to work or to live in an apartment. So indeed offering any job to Nikolai was an illegal activity but Iosif, the manager had something else in his mind. This enthusiastic soccer-fan dreamt of constructing a strong Bakery Football Team and gave the responsibility of finding quality football players and his former teammates to Nikolai. The ever enthusiastic goalie, began his search for former teammates by walking through the lanes of Kiev and then slowly one by one, he was able to find nine of his former Dynamo Kiev teammates (they were Nikolai Korotkykh, Mikhail Svyridovskiy, Mykola Korotkykh, Oleksiy Kilimenko, Fedir Tyutchev, Mikhail Putistin, Ivan Kuzmenko, Makar Goncharenko, Makar Honcharenko) and also some of the players of Lokomotiv Kiev (Vladimir Balakin, Vasil Sukharev and Mikhail Melnyk). So in the next few weeks, in those days of insecurity, all the contacted players slowly moved to the Bakery Number 3 where they got much needed food, shelter as well as job. From then onwards, all those players working in the bakery, some of whom were suffering from malnutrition, started to train though they were tired of 24 hour shift and started to believe that they have the potential to be a powerful team. The tall and skillful goalie Nikolai gave their brave unit a name "Football Club Start (FC Start)" as participation in football and getting job, shelter in the Bakery Number 3 gave them a new life which was previously guided mainly by terror, fear and confusion.
The Journey of FC Start
They first played a match in the local league run by Georgi Shvetsov, a former footballer and sports instructor and Start's first opponents were Rukh, Shvetsov's own team. They convincingly won that particular match by a margin of 7-2 though they haven't got a proper shoes as well as football jerseys. Shvetsov became very much embarrassed and went to the German authority and asked them to ban FC Start from training at Rukh's Stadium. Without the training facilities, they still won all the matches by huge margins.
They beat the Hungarian Garrison by 6-2 on 21st June 1942, Romanian Garrison by a huge margin of 11-0 on 5th July. This winning sequence boosted the morale of all the Ukrainians, who were morally low and dejected for all what happened to them. They used to turn up at large numbers to see their favorite team mercilessly crushing the other teams coming from the regiments of ruling power.
Their winning streak continued as they again won by a margin of 9-1 Military railroad workers team on 12th July and on 17th July, they also defeated PSG (a German unit) by 6-0. But slowly the German authorities were becoming annoyed to hear about the supremacy of Ukrainians in the soccer fields. They could also see the enthusiasm generated by the football team among the common mass and they sensed that this enthusiasm could pose a great threat to the foundation of German supremacy. This enthusiasm can also start a sudden freedom movement. On 19th July FC Start won against MSG.Wal, a Hungarian team by the margin 5-1 and they again won the rematch on 21st July by a narrow margin of 3-2. To prevent the joyous journey of FC Start in the football field, the German Authorities fielded a team named as Flakelf in the same league and the players of that team were physically far more superior to any players from any other team. When FC Start was playing their last match against MSG Wal, the Flakelf team was playing against Rukh (against which team FC Start started their incredible journey) and Flakelf almost demolished Rukh and there were rumors that Flakelf team had not lost any matches before.
So on 6th August, 1942 FC Start met Flakelf in the football field and to the astonishment of the German Authorities, FC Start won the match convincingly by a huge margin of 5-1. Now the German Authorities took this matter seriously and they announced a rematch of the same two teams on Sunday, 9th August at Zenith Stadium. The posters were put up in the walls to announce the rematch between the same two rivals.
Finally: – the Game of Death
On 9th August, Sunday spectators gathered at large number at the Zenith Stadium to watch the match between the resurgent FC Start and the yet undefeated Flakelf football team. The atmosphere was very much tense and it took a very much effort for the Ukrainian and German Police to control the huge crowd. Just before the match started, the referee of the match, a SS officer came to FC Start's dressing room and told them to greet their German team in their fashion by giving a salute and saying "Heil Hitler". The FC Start footballers already sensed that the referring in the match would be biased against them. After the referee left the dressing room, there was a state of pandemonium. They clearly understood that the authorities had planned in such a manner that if somehow they managed to win the match, they will face dire consequences. Some of them thought of giving away the match and some of the players suggested to play a clear game. One Romanian delegate also came to the dressing room and congratulated them for their successful journey in the league and wished them Good Luck. After that, all the players unanimously decided to go out to the field and play football.
Just minutes before the kick-off the strong and stout Flakelf team lined up in the half-line and gave a Nazi Salute "Heil Hitler". Then it was the turn of the Start players and they decided not to give a Nazi Salute and instead of that, brought their arms back to the chest and shouted a Soviet slogan 'FizcultHura!' which means "Physical Culture Hooray!". This chant got a very wild response from all corners of the stadium which infuriated the German Authorities to a larger extent.
Just as it was thought, the referee totally ignored any foul committed by the Flakelf team and they targeted Start goalie Nikolai to attack physically. After sustaining blow after blow, suddenly a Flakelf forward hit Nikolai in the head leaving him almost unconsciousness. While he was recovering from the injury, Flakelf went 1-0 up. The Flakelf team was pulling the jerseys, tackling dangerously and also while tackling they were going for the players instead of ball but still those tackles could not draw any kind attention from the referee. Despite these facts, FC Start scored a wonderful equalizer from a free kick by the winger, Kuzmenko. This goal got a huge cheer from the large congregation of people who previously were hurling abuses for the Flakelf team for their ugly play. A few minutes, after the equalizer Goncharenko, another Start forward, dribbling through the venomous Flakelf defense scored another wonderful goal and they went ahead. Just minutes before the half time they again scored another goal and the scoreline read 3-1.
During the halftime the team was ecstatic to overcome the strict challenges faced by them in the match and the scoreline was also in their favor. However, Shvetsov, a former football player, suddenly came to the dressing room and told them to protect themselves from their opponents. Soon after he left, another SS Officer came there and told them politely that though they are a good team but they should lose the match otherwise they will get harsh punishment from the Authority.
Amidst the confusion and in a state of indecisiveness, the Start players started the second half of the game and this time, the Flakelf team, afraid a crowd trouble, played less violently. Start as well as Flakelf scored two goals each and Start was leading at that time by 5-3. Then, Klimenko, a Start defender, got the ball in the midfield, beat the entire German defenders and went to the penalty box. Then, instead of pushing the ball towards goal line, he turned around and kicked the ball back towards the center circle. This was a total humiliation for the Flakelf team as the defender himself chose the option not to score against them. Soon after that, the referee blew the final whistle.
The After Effect of the Match
FC Start players' enjoyment was short lived as they can see that the German soldiers were hitting the crowd as they were shouting loudly after their favorite team's success. It was a total humiliation for the Nazi army as well as for their Hungarian and Romanian allies. The axis troop cannot take that game lightly as their team of Aryan descendant was comprehensibly beaten by a bunch of "Sub-Humans". They could sense that for the first time in a year or so, there is public outcry against them and if it is not handled prematurely then this sentiment could spark a revolution against them and it may spread in all directions just like infectious disease.
But nothing could stop the successful run of the Start as they again demolished Rukh by a margin of 8-0 on 16th August. Soon after that, Bakery Number – 3 was invaded by a number of Gestapo members (intelligence group of German Police) and almost all the FC Start players were arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo, allegedly for being NKVD members (as Dynamo was a police-funded club). The Gestapo wanted them to confess that they were criminals or saboteurs which would have given them enough reason to execute the players. But none of them had confessed. One of the arrested players Nikolai Korotkykh died under severe torture as his sister identified him as a NKVD officer. He was first Start player to die who played in "The Death Match". The German Gestapo, unable to break the silence of the players, sent the ten survivors off to a nearby labor camp at Siretz. At Siretz, they were expected to work, until do not die of starvation, malnutrition or dehydration.
The Fate of the other Players
But other players survived in different ways.
Pavel Komarov, one of the players escaped from the labor camp at Siretz and then he disappeared from public view.
In 1943, following an attack of anti-German allies, the camp commandant thought of killing every third prisoner as reprisal. So, the entire camp was lined up in the freezing mid-winter cold. Kuzmenko, the tall FC Start striker and scorer from the free kick in that particular match, was one of those who gathered in the ground with others and shot dead. Young and talented defender Klimenko, who had have not scored despite getting the opportunity in the penalty box and kicked in to the midfield was the next one to die.
He was asked to lie down and was shot behind the ear as he lay on the ground. Nikolai Trusevich, the giant goalkeeper and captain was also knocked to the ground. According to an eyewitness, he sprang back to his feet and shouted out a Communist slogan 'Red Sport will never die!'. A German guard opened fire. He reportedly died on his feet, wearing his favorite goalkeeper's jersey. The bodies of the three players, along with those of all the other murdered prisoners, were taken to Babi Yar and thrown into the ravine.
Three of the other players, Goncharenko, Tyutchev and Sviridovsky, who, fortunately, were in a work squad in the city, were shocked when the news spread. They became very much panic-stricken and they guessed that, because of their profile as FC Start players, it might be their turn next. They thought that the German Authorities are planning to execute all the FC Start players to take a revenge for the humiliation they suffered in that particular match. All three quickly made the decision to escape and they stayed hidden in the city until Kiev was liberated from German occupation in November 1943. But it did not help them in other way. When Stalin regained the control over Kiev, he ordered the intelligence to interrogate all the persons who came close to the Germans or their allies previously. So they were also tortured during the hours of interrogation. These few survivors were the persons responsible for the popularization of the dreaded fate met by the FC Start players and the account of their struggle.
The Death Match is that Real or a Myth ??? Different Views
At first, the Soviet Authorities had suppressed the real truth revolving the death match though that successful run by the FC Start team has boosted the morale of all the Ukrainians during those horrible days of Nazi occupied Ukraine. And later on, the Soviet Minister of Sport in Ukraine, Timofei Strokach, suppressed the story about the heroics performed by the FC Start players because of 3 reasons: –
1. The FC Start footballers had actually agreed to play in the Nazi-organized league – which meant possible collaboration with the Nazi's and their Allies, which was totally opposite to the Soviet's stand during those days. When Soviet army was heavily fighting against Nazi's then FC Start players decision to play in a Nazi organized league, according to the Communist Party of Soviet Union, was something that was not desirable or should be condemned. So their heroic performance was not officially regarded.
2. Those players decision to beat the Germans was a spontaneous act and not approved by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – this kind of individualism was hara-kiri. They consider this as an act of foolishness, not as an act of heroics.
3. They were Ukrainians.
On 16 November 1943, Izvestiya was the first newspaper to report the execution of the sportsmen by the Germans but the relation with the match was not mentioned in that particular article.
Later, in 1959 a Ukrainian writer Petro Severov written an article titled "The Last Duel" which came in "Evening Kiev" newspaper in which for the first time the official recognition of the heroics shown by the FC Start Players during the match was published. He said that the murder possibly took place several months after the match and in the prison camp.
In 1997, an Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, in his book "Football in Sun and Shadow" written that all the FC Start players were given a condition before the match that if they win they will die, but still the players after going to the ground , they totally forgot about the probable outcome of their victory and playing their natural game they went on to win the match. They were shot wearing their Club jersey. This version is totally different from the one that was told to others by the surviving members of the team Goncharenko, Tyutchev and Sviridovsky and also from Petro Severov's account.
Also only survivor of the players, Goncharenko gave an interview to tell about the horrible experience they have suffered during and after the match which revealed all the parts that were previously shrouded in mystery.
The Relevance of that Match in Popular Culture
In 1971, in memory of their heroics, a monument was placed outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium to commemorate their contribution, their sacrifice and their true passion for a game, Football which they had exhibited after knowing fully well that they will lose their lives if they win. In 1981 the Dynamo Kiev Stadium was renamed to Start Stadium.
Quite a few famous films like 1961 Hungarian film drama "Két félidÅ 'a pokolban" and "Escape to Victory" was also made taking inspiration from the story. In "Escape to Victory" film many renowned football players like Pele, Bobby Moore took part and it also featured Sylvester Stallone. A few other films like "Third Time" and "The Match of Death" were also made on the same story. Based on the same story, a few other Ukrainian plays were also made.
Why the Players Should Remain in our Memory Forever ??
More than 320000 Ukrainians died during the Second World War and those who have survived were sent for deportation or prison camps. Finally, when in Ukraine, where so much death, devastation and destruction were taking place in Stalin era as well as Nazi regime, how much important was the incident of the executing the Start Football players and was this incident is of historical significance? So, does that incident carry any historical importance or should this act be termed as a freedom struggle or as an act of foolishness or they were impulsive while taking their decision? These questions will always remain unanswered as we cannot assess the political scenario without actually going back in time. But definitely they will be remembered for giving their precious lives for the sake of playing a clean game, not yielding to the pressure exerted by the authorities, even if they were threatened to be slaughtered if they win and also for boosting the morale of the millions of fellow war ravaged countrymen who totally lost their hopes.
Though the FC Start players, like common mass, lost their lives during Second World War, but they lost their lives for their passion of a game. They exhibited their wonderful skill in the football field to defeat the German team which brought smile and happiness and some ray of hope to all those Ukrainians in those dark days of horrifying devastation, death and destruction. So they will remain forever in the memory of all die hard football fans allover the world for their courageous effort in that match. No where in the world, the players were met with such harsh punishment for winning a football match.
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