The Berlin Olympics in 1936 were intended both as a propaganda display of Nazi power and a demonstration of the physical supremacy of the Aryans over all other races. Yet the world has watched as the notion of Aryans as the “race of masters” was challenged, if not crushed, by African-American All-Star athlete Jesse Owens and his four gold medals.
Six years later, with World War II raging on, the Nazis would attempt another sporting coup to show their superiority, this time over one of their conquered populations whom they considered to be untermenschen, or subhumans. Again, the idea was tested and found to be insufficient, and involved a football match.
On August 9, 1942, at the Zenit Stadium in occupied Kiev, a team of Ukrainian players called FC Start – malnourished, forced into forced labor in a bread factory and living in constant fear – faced a team of the German armed forces, called Flakelf . They were the best the Nazis had to offer, and were said to have been kept away from the front lines by Herman GÃ¶ring himself to ensure their safety.
There were stories of matches refereed by Gestapo or SS officers; explicit threats to the Ukrainians about what would happen to them if they did not lose; and armed soldiers patrolling the edge of the field. And when FC Start claimed an unlikely victory with a score of 5-3, the players were reportedly executed while still wearing their kits. It became known as the “death match”. To this day, murdered players are celebrated as heroes: symbolizing bravery, challenge, and triumph over oppression. A statue of them stands in front of a stadium in Kiev.
But this version of the Death Match is a Soviet myth. The truth was lost in the years after the final whistle, used and corrupted by the Soviet propaganda machine to hold the match up as a glorious example of Communism’s victory over fascism. Football was played fairly and the players were not killed afterwards. In fact, those who survived the war were forced to repeat the version of events created by the Soviet authorities, aware that they were lies.
FC Start had been formed from former professional players, mainly from clubs Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev. After the Nazi occupation in 1941, they were forced to find work they could. Dynamo keeper Nikolai Trusevich got a job in one of the big bakeries, which belonged to sports fan Joseph Kordik. Together, they brought in other players and formed a team.
They played a number of matches in 1942 against other Ukrainian teams – including Ruch, formed and made up of Nazi sympathizers – and also Germans. They won every game, usually with overwhelming score lines. The dominance of FC Start was such that the Nazis assembled the Flakelf team for a game on August 6, but they lost heavily 5-1.
The so-called deathmatch was a rematch, scheduled by the Germans for just three days later. They made sure to promote that they had ‘beefed up’ their side and stepped out, as one of the few surviving posters read in large print, for ‘revenge’. Details of the match are sketchy and contradictory due to the lack of coverage (the embarrassed Germans wanted to ignore the outcome) and decades of Soviet disinformation. What can be gleaned came from some of the 2,500 spectators. FC Start won 5-3 and came off the pitch alive.
Over the next ten days, most of the FC Start players were arrested at the bakery and sent to concentration camps for work. Five died in six months. The Soviet version claims this was a direct response to the match, but that’s highly unlikely. A series of investigations, which began in the 1970s and did not end until the 2000s, determined that no connection could be found between the Death Match and their actual deaths.
Rather, Ukrainians were caught up in widespread and brutal Nazi persecution, having been suspected of working with the Soviet secret police or accused of other crimes. Then after the war, the survivors are suspected of collaboration with the Germans. They were political pawns, when they only wanted to be football players. The “Death Match” has since inspired the plot of several films, including the 1961 Hungarian film. Two halves in hell.
This Q&A was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021