BY THE MIDDLE of September 1941, just three months after Adolf Hitler’s army had invaded the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s capital, Kyiv, was occupied by the Wehrmacht after a cruel and bloody siege that lasted for 72 days. However, the Nazi government didn’t want to look like brutal tyrants in the eyes of the local population, so they tried to create the illusion of a prosperous life by organising various cultural events and incorporating sports into the day-to-day life of the ordinary citizen. It was an illusion that many saw straight through.
At the same time as the Nazi invasion, Joseph Kordik, a Moravian Czech and a sports aficionado, was appointed to the director’s post at the Kyiv Bread Factory. There he met Nikolai Trusevich, a man who scrambled for his living by selling lighters at a market and who turned out to be a former Dynamo Kyiv goalkeeper.
Trusevich had been offered a job at the factory by his new acquaintance and a short while later he was joined by some of his old teammates, who were given the same bread-baking jobs. In total, there were nine of them: three represented Dynamo Kyiv, while the others were from Spartak Odessa, Lokomotiv Kyiv and other capital clubs.
With football now just a pastime, they decided to found the factory’s first team. After their plea to the town council had been approved, a new club named Start appeared in Kyiv. Aside from the aforementioned former professionals, their squad consisted of a chef, a guard and three policemen. It was a mix of all kinds, and they played for the love of the game.
Elsewhere, another club, Ruch, was formed in the city almost simultaneously with Start. Their founder, Georgi Shvetsov, being aware of the Dynamo players’ outstanding quality, invited them to join his side. They refused his invitation, knowing that Shvetsov was a Nazi accomplice and therefore his club, compiled of law enforcement officials and workers from factories, was a pro-Nazi organisation. The differing ideologies at Start and Ruch, one a side of patriots, the other a club of sympathizers, was plainly obvious. For many, the two clubs’ emergence was symbolically Ukraine versus Germany.
At the beginning of the Nazi government’s rule in Kyiv, football was only intended for the Aryans and their allies, yet the Germans were so impressed with Start comprehensively beating every opponent they encountered – including a 7-2 humiliation of Ruch, 6-2 against the Hungarian garrison’s team and 7-1 against a German artillery unit – that they sent their very best team, which was considered invincible, to contend with the Soviets.
The Invincibles’ name was Flakelf, which is an acronym for the German words Flak (Flugzeugabwehrkanone), which means ‘ack-ack’ gun and Elf with the translation of number 11. The team was made up of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners, pilots and mechanical engineers from the Kyiv airfield. Flakelf was personally supervised by Hermann Göring, who forbade sending the players to the battlefront as they were among Germany’s most talented football players.
The clash between Start and Flakelf took place on August 6, 1942, and finished with the 5-1 dismantling of the German side. The Nazis, of course, could not accept a defeat from their ‘inferior’ ideological rivals, so they declared their wish for a return match to dispel any confusion, especially as several new recruits had strengthened their squad.
The second fixture was held three days after the first. By half-time the score was 3-1 to Start. At the break, a German officer entered Start’s ramshackle dressing room and delivered a chilling message: “There are only Germans who can win today.” He then moved to the room where the Flakelf players were having a rest and said: “You must win today and prove the superiority of the Aryan race!” Later, these words were confirmed by the players of both sides. The German propaganda machine was in full swing.
Although Flakelf equalized in the second half, Start scored twice towards the end, defying their occupiers’ demands, and prevailed 5-3. According to legend, spectators that crammed the stands roared and chanted anti-Nazi slogans in a wave of patriotism and bravery. This was not just a football match to them, it was a battle between Ukraine and Germany, between communism and fascism.
In reality, the true state of the crowd in the stadium remains largely unconfirmed. In Ukrainian folklore, people tell stories of a raucous, Nazi-defying crowd, facing up to their occupiers and fiercely defending their history. Other accounts tell of a crowd too scared to voice their opinion for fear of arrest, imprisonment or even death. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
The accounts of a quiet crowd operating in fear seen more likely given that after the final whistle blew, the rivals took a photo together (main photo) and left the pitch without any issues. It runs counter to a widespread myth that suggests all the Start players were shot after the game ended. This is where its later acquired title ‘The Death Match’ comes from. On that evening, the Start players gathered alongside their coach, Mikhail Putistin, and commemorated their friend, Alexander Tkachenko, who had been killed a day earlier. They were very much still alive.
After witnessing the Start players’ superiority over the Germans, Friedrich Rogausch, the Kyiv Stadtkomissar, banned games between the Soviet and the German football teams in order to avoid any embarrassment for the Third Reich.
On August 18, 1942, all the Start players from the Bread Factory were suddenly arrested for reasons still largely unconfirmed. Some believed that they were betrayed by the German intelligence agent, Georgy Viatchkis. Soon after, those that were former Lokomotiv players were released, while the others remained under custody suspected of cooperating with the NKVD, the USSR’s secret police.
As soon as the Nazis learned that one of the players, Nikolai Korotkykh, was indeed an active NKVD officer, they tortured him in and drove him to a heart attack, which he failed to survive.
Sometime later, the truth about the Start players and a partisan party they threw in Kyiv – with the objective to intrude into the German elements in society – would be revealed. Upon the revelations reaching the Germans, the rest of the men were put into solitary confinement and were made to work for the Germans as electricians and boot makers.
Later, the Nazis executed about a half of all the bread factory workers, again under vague circumstances. There are conflicting versions as to why they turned all of a sudden: some suggest it because someone accidentally hit the camp superintendent’s dog, while others believe it was as a result of workers placing pieces of a broken glass into the flour they made bread for the Germans from. Whatever the real reason was, many people were killed that day and three former Dynamo Kyiv stars were among the victims. All of them, however, were NKVD lieutenants.
The prosecutor’s office in Hamburg started investigating the Death Match case in 1972. It was working on it until 2005, although they never truly discovered what the Start players were arrested for and whether their deaths were somehow linked to the outcome of that crucial game against Flakelf. However, the senior prosecutor, Jochen Kuhlmann, has a long-standing personal belief: “The players’ deaths do not have any connection with the result of the match. The men were shot on the superintendant’s command.”
In 1943, the Izvestia newspaper was the first to call that game The Death Match. Since then the match has acquired legend status, surrounded by various fantasies. In 1964 some of its winners were awarded with the medals of honour, while others were given medals for war services posthumously. In 1971, a monument depicting the figures of four football players was erected outside the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium in the memory of the heroes’ deeds.
So who were these brave men that beat everybody on the pitch, and what did they suffer for? Nowadays a hypothesis goes that they were special agents picking up secret information in Kyiv and passing it to a Soviet spy operating under the name of Anton Mayer. There is even a theory that suggests that it was Mayer himself who informed Joseph Stalin about Hitler’s plans to attack Stalingrad. Having learned this, Stalin was given time to prepare the city for its defence. In 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad became decisive in the outcome of World War II. The Nazi’s defeat saw Hitler end his plan to conquer the USSR and highlighted the first major cracks in the German’s division.
Whatever the facts surrounding the remarkable Death Match, it remains one of the most politically-charged, intriguing and fierce matches in the history of football. It also serves as a great stand of Ukrainian patriotism, and an everlasting blow to the Nazi ideals of fascism and Ayrian control.
By Vladislav Ryabov