The Ukrainian capital of Kiev was one of the host cities for Euro 2012. The tournament saw nations from all over Europe battling against each other. Culminating in the final between Italy and Spain in the magnificent Olympic Stadium.
But not too far from the excitement and fireworks of the final, another football ground exists. Now a crumbling shell, it was here in 1942 that a very different game took place. The FC Start Stadium in the north of Kiev was the venue for one of the darkest episodes in the history of European football.
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In the summer of 1942, at the height of World War II, a Ukrainian club was forced to play a game against occupying Nazi forces. It became known as “The Death Match”.
The German occupiers organised a series of football matches against a local Ukrainian team. What happened next isn’t completely clear, but it has given rise to a football legend that is as much a myth as it is reality – dependent on whose version of the truth you choose to believe.
The Death Match
There’s no doubt that a series of matches took place, culminating in “The Death Match”. A game between a team of Germans on one side, and the Ukrainian players of FC Start – a group of bakers from a Kiev bread factory.
In reality, these workers were some of the best soccer players in Ukraine. Most had previously played for either Dynamo Kiev or FC Lokomotive.
Our story began several months earlier when a former Dynamo goalkeeper, Nikolai Trusevich, found work in a Kiev bakery. The bakery’s owner, Josef Kordi, was a Dynamo fan and persuaded him to put together a team with some of his former teammates. The team took the name FC Start, and they played in a league organised by the occupying Germans.
On August 9, 1942, several thousand people waited in the heat of the summer sun to watch a German team take on the Ukrainians. The stands of the Zenit Stadium were full to overflowing, not only with the German Army but also with local Kiev residents.
Before the match, it’s reported that an SS officer entered FC Start’s dressing room and instructed the players to give the Nazi salute when they came out onto the pitch. Sources also claimed he told the players to throw the match or face the consequences. However, when the Ukrainian team went onto the pitch, not a single FC Start player saluted. It soon became clear they were playing to win.
When the final whistle sounded, FC START had beaten the Germans 5-3, and it’s here that history and legend diverge. What happened to the victorious players after the game is still hotly debated by the Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans.
In the 60’s, the Soviet propaganda machine seized on the “Death Match” event and made two films. Both movies suggested that all 11 players were arrested immediately after the final whistle and executed in their football jerseys. However, that never happened; FC Start went on to play other games following the infamous “Death Match”.
Nevertheless, several FC START players did get arrested at a later date. They were charged with being members of the Soviet Secret Political Police by the Germans. One of them, Nikolai Korotkikh, was tortured and killed. Several players got sent to the Syrets labour camp. The German occupiers also executed another three players.
They didn’t all die because they were good footballers or Dynamo players. They died like a lot of other Soviets because two totalitarian regimes went to war.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a member of the team spoke about how his teammates met their deaths. “They didn’t all die because they were good footballers or Dynamo players. They died like a lot of other Soviets because two totalitarian regimes went to war. All were victims of a wide-scale massacre. The death of these players isn’t very different from those of a lot of other people.” – Makar Goncharenko.
A campaign has started to preserve the Start Stadium and the memory of one of the darkest episodes in the history of the game. In Kiev, two monuments pay tribute to the FC Start players. One is in front of the Dynamo stadium, and the other, portraying a player striking down a Nazi eagle, is situated outside the crumbling Start stadium.