Editor’s note: Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the infamous “Death Match”.
On the 9th of August 1942, a group of men who worked at Kiev’s Bakery #3 took on the might of the Nazi Luftwaffe team and triumphed. The game was dubbed the “Death Match”. It was a match that went down in legend and folklore. It was a match that was used for Soviet propaganda. It was a match that provided the inspiration for the 1981 film Escape to Victory. It was a match where the events surrounding the game are still being discussed and debated. It was a match that came about because of the remarkable feats of F.C. Start.
On the 19th of September 1941 the Nazis successfully invaded and captured Kiev. A few days after they took over the city, the Nazis slaughtered over 33,000 Jews at the ravine of Babi Yar.
In their attempts to keep the local population under control the Nazi rulers decided to introduce a series of football matches in June 1942. It was part of an effort to distract and pacify the populace with a sense of “normality.” Little did they know that a group of former Dynamo and Lokomotiv Kiev players who worked at a bakery would turn into a symbol of resistance for the people of Kiev.
The formation of F.C. Start effectively began with Nikolai Trusevich. Trusevich was the goalkeeper of Dynamo Kiev before the outbreak of World War II. He enlisted in the army to defend Kiev but soon became a prisoner of war and was held in the Darnitsa camp after the Nazi’s captured the city. Trusevich was eventually released, after signing papers pledging loyalty to the new regime (not that he had much choice considering the alternative), and returned to Kiev.
Trusevich found work as a sweeper at Kiev’s Bakery #3 and was given his job by Josef Kordik. Though he was Czech, Kordik spoke fluent German and convinced the Nazis that he was an Austrian with a Ukrainian wife. He found favor with the Nazis as they allowed him to run Bakery #3. Kordik’s initial meeting with Trusevich happened to be a chance encounter when the former recognized the latter, hungry and looking for work, on the streets of Kiev.
Kordik, was purportedly a fan of the Dynamo side that Trusevich kept goal for and the pair soon looked for other members of the team with the promise of work, food and shelter. Soon Bakery #3 employed a talented and formidable side containing ex-players from Dynamo and Lokomotiv Kiev.
The first player to be recruited by Trusevich was Makar Goncharenko. He was joined by fellow Dynamo teammates: Mikhail Putistin, Feodor Tyutchev, Ivan Kuzmenko, Alexei Klimenko, Mikhail Sviridovsky and Nikolai Korotkykh. Rounding out the team were Vladimir Balakin, Vasiliy Sukharev and Mikhail Melnik who all played for Lokomotiv Kiev. In earnest F.C. Start was born.
F.C. Start joined a league set up by Georgi Shvetsov, an ex-footballer himself who aligned himself with the regime, and played their first match against Rukh, the favored side of Shvetsov on the 7th of June 1942. There was a debate amongst the members of F.C. Start as to whether they should even take part in the league, fearing that they would have been seen as endorsing Nazi rule. They concluded however that football could be a way to galvanize the people of occupied Kiev.
Trusevich’s message to his troops couldn’t be clearer.
“We do not have weapons but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch … for a while the members of Dynamo and Zheldor (Lokomotiv) will be playing in one color, the color of our flag. The Fascists should know that this color cannot be defeated.”
Despite being undernourished and working long shifts F.C. Start demolished Rukh 7:2, much to the consternation of the league’s owner. So angry was Shvetsov that he managed to get the authorities to ban F.C. Start from using Rukh’s stadium for training. The ban didn’t stop Trusevich’s men from embarking on an extraordinary winning run.
Following that win, F.C. Start reeled off a string of victories. They defeated:
June 21 – Hungarian Garrison – 6:2
July 5 – Romanian Garrison – 11:0
July 17 – PGS (Germany) – 6:0
July 19 – MSG. Wal (Hungary) – 5:1
July 26 – MSG. Wal (Hungary) – 3:2
August 6th – Flakelf (Germany) – 5:1
By this time F.C. Start had gained a following in Kiev, providing a beacon of hope for those living under Nazi rule. Their popularity was duly noted by the regime and they realized that F.C. Start needed to be defeated to bring the population back into line. They were hoping that the Luftwaffe team, Flakelf, would take care of F.C. Start. Despite the Nazi side fielding fit and healthy players, they were taken apart 5-1 on the 6th of August by Trusevich’s team.
The day following Flakelf’s defeat by F.C. Start, posters were put up indicating a rematch between the two sides set to be played on the 9th of August at the Zenit stadium. Ominously, written under the word “football” was “revenge.” This game came to be known as the “Death Match”.
Flakelf strengthened their side in preparation for the rematch and anticipated that the players of F.C. Start would be too physically spent to pull off another victory given their malnourishment and work commitments. The authorities priced the game at five rubles per ticket – equivalent to half a month’s wage, but despite the cost Zenit stadium was packed.
According to an account by Makar Goncharenko prior to kick off, the F.C. Start players were visited by the referee, an SS officer. He apparently told them “I am the referee of today’s game. I know you are a very good team. Please follow all the rules, do not break any of the rules and before the game greet your opponents in our fashion”. The message was clear. The players of F.C. Start were expected to give the Nazi salute. When they took to the field though, the players refused follow the referee’s request and instead shouted “FizcultHura” which roughly translates to “long live sport.” It was an act of defiance.
The popular recounting of the game told of a physical match in which Flakelf deliberately fouled the F.C. Start players. The referee overlooked the physicality of the Flakelf side and the rough tactics led to Nikolai Trusevich being knocked unconscious by one of the challenges. A groggy Trusevich had to stay on though as there was no one who could take his place. Flakelf took advantage of his condition and scored the first goal of the game. Despite being on the receiving end of a number of robust challenges F.C. Start equalized with a shot from distance by Ivan Kuzmenko. Makar Goncharenko then scored two further goals, one an individual effort dribbling past a number of Flakelf players and the other latching onto a pass from Kuzmenko. F.C. Start went into the break 3-1 up.
Goncharenko recalled in an interview with a Kiev radio station in 1992 that an SS officer had visited the F.C. Start changing room and politely told them to “consider the consequences of victory.” Goncharenko did state though that F.C. Start were never explicitly instructed to lose the match.
Details of the second half are sketchy but F.C. Start scored two more goals, as did Flakelf. The defining moment of the second half (and arguably the game) came from Alexei Klimenko who had dribbled past the Flakelf defense and rounded their goalkeeper, but instead of tapping the ball home he opted to boot it back up to half way. The humiliation of the Flakelf side was complete.
The game itself is soaked in myth and it is hard to separate truth from fiction. The surviving players were initially reluctant to talk about the encounter, as they were afraid of being labeled Nazi collaborators. Makar Goncharenko gave differing accounts of the game. In an interview in 1985 he stated that Flakelf scored three goals after Trusevich was knocked out and were ahead going into the break, but when he spoke about it in 1995 he said that F.C. Start were 3:1 up at half time. A reason for the discrepancy could have been Goncharenko’s fear of contradicting the official Soviet version of events.
There were stories that in the aftermath of the match the players of F.C. Start were rounded up and executed. That wasn’t the case though as the team played one more game a week after the infamous “Death match,” thrashing Rukh 8:0.
On the 18th of August 1942 the Gestapo arrived at Bakery #3 and read out a list of names who were required for questioning. The names were of the players of F.C. Start. The Gestapo wanted to prove that the players were agents of the NKVD, the secret police, and knew that the organization had links to Dynamo Kiev prior to the war. Apparently a picture of Nikolai Korotkykh in an NKVD uniform was discovered and he was tortured to death. The story goes that his sister had turned him in after being interrogated by the Nazis.
The remaining members of the team were sent to a concentration camp at Syrets. It was there, six months after they had been arrested, that Alexei Klimenko, Ivan Kuzmenko and Nikolai Trusevich met their fate. The commander of the concentration camp, Paul Radomski, had ordered the prisoners of the camp to line-up and decreed that every third one would be shot. There are differing reasons given for his decision to exact punishment, ranging from revenge for attacks by Soviet partisans to retribution for prisoner disobedience. No matter what, they were three pillars of the F.C. Start side were felled. Trusevich, it was said, was wearing the goalkeeping top he wore for F.C. Start in the final moments of his life.
Makar Goncharenko, Mikhail Sviridovsky and Feodor Tyutchev, who were in Kiev as part of the work squad, took their opportunity to flee fearing that they would be killed if they returned to Syrets.
After the fall of the Nazis the Soviet government initially played down the story of F.C Start with the exploits of the team only being recognized and broadly told in the late 1950s. The regime soon came to realize the propaganda value of using the legend of F.C. Start to further their ideological cause. From then on the Soviet government used the story of F.C. Start for their own purposes. They promoted the myth that a number of the team were immediately shot after the game and died for their ideology and ideals. Indeed, when Goncharenko was discussing the aftermath of game in 1985 he claimed that Trusevich’s last words were “long live Stalin, long live Soviet Sport.” Again, there are differing accounts of exactly what words, if any, Trusevic uttered. Goncharenko may have felt obliged to give the regime’s version of events.
Two decades after the match the surviving members of F.C. Start were awarded medals for their bravery by the state, but Mikhail Putistin refused to collect his as he didn’t want to participate in part of a “lie.”
As the Soviet Union fell there appeared to be a reexamining of the game. Ukrainian football expert Georgi Kuzmin said that the propaganda suited everyone’s purpose as “The Soviets could show that people would go to their death for the sake of Soviet ideology. And the people of Kiev like the story. It’s a good fairy tale. But everyone should know the truth.”
Other Ukrainian historians such as Valentyn Shcherbachov suggested that only three members of the F.C. Start side played full first team football for Dynamo Kiev: Trusevich, Klimenko and Pavel Komarov. Incidentally, Kormarov was suspected of being an informant for the Nazi guards when he was held in Syrets and was allowed to escape the camp when the Red army marched on Kiev.
Makar Goncharenko, who died in 1996, gave a frank assessment about the consequences of F.C. Start’s victory in the “Death Match”:
“A desperate fight for survival started which ended badly for four players,” he said “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. The death of the Dynamo players is not so very different from many other deaths”.
Goncharenko did pay tribute to his comrades who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis.
“It may sound cynical, but the four who died were lucky because they could do what they loved even in the occupied territory,” he eulogized of Trusevich, Kuzmenko, Klimenko and Korotkykh. “In front of everyone, both the citizens of Kiev and the German occupants, they could prove what great players they were without being humiliated and without bowing down to anyone”.
Despite the reexamination of the game the legend still lives strong.
In Kiev, a pair of monuments pays homage to the team led by Nikolai Trusevich. The Zenit stadium was renamed the Start stadium in 1981 to commemorate the side that defeated Frakelf. Filmmakers were inspired to make movies honoring the story of this football team. F.C. Start may have only played a handful of games the side left a lasting legacy.
In terms of pure numbers F.C. Start’s record was: played nine, won nine, 56 goals scored with just 11 conceded. In terms of importance to football their contribution is immeasurable.