Did Nazis guards really play a ‘death match’ against a Ukrainian football team?

In August 1942, a team of Ukrainian players called FC Start played against a team from the German armed forces. What happened next was soon caught up in Soviet myth, and became known as the 'Death Match'. How much is known about what happened?

A statue in Kiev showing a Ukrainian player defeating a Third Reich eagle symbol at the Start stadium's entrance

The Berlin Olympics in 1936 was intended both as a propaganda display of Nazi might and a demonstration of the physical supremacy of Aryans over all other races. Yet famously the world watched as the notion of Aryans as the ‘master race’ was challenged, even crushed, by the African-American all-star athlete Jesse Owens and his four gold medals.

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Six years later, with WW2 raging, the Nazis would attempt another sporting stunt to show their superiority, this time over one of their conquered populations that they deemed to be untermenschen, or subhumans. Again, the idea was tested and found wanting, and involved a football match.

On 9 August 1942, at the Zenit Stadium in occupied Kiev, a team of Ukrainian players called FC Start – malnourished, forced into labour at a bread-making factory, and living in constant fear – played against a team from the German armed forces, called Flakelf. They were the best the Nazis had to offer, said to have been kept away from the front lines by Herman Göring himself to ensure their safety.

There were stories of the game being officiated by Gestapo or SS officers; of explicit threats being made to the Ukrainians of what would happen to them if they didn’t lose; and of armed soldiers patrolling the edge of the pitch. And when FC Start pulled off an unlikely win 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, the murdered players are celebrated as heroes: symbolising bravery, defiance and triumph against oppression. A statue of them stands outside a Kiev stadium.

But this version of the Death Match is a Soviet myth. The truth was lost in the years following the final whistle, utilised and corrupted by the Soviet propaganda machine to hold the match aloft as a glorious example of the victory of communism over fascism. The football was actually played fairly and the players weren’t killed afterwards. In fact, those who survived the war were compelled to repeat the version of events created by Soviet authorities, aware that they were lies.

FC Start had been formed from former professional players, mainly from the clubs Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev. Following the Nazi occupation in 1941, they had been forced to find what work they could. Nikolai Trusevich, the Dynamo goalkeeper, got a job at one of the large bakeries, which was owned by the sports-mad Joseph Kordik. Together, they brought in other players and made a team.

They played a number of matches during 1942 against other Ukrainian teams – including Ruch, formed by and made up of Nazi sympathisers – and also Germans. They won every single game, usually with crushing score lines. Such was FC Start’s dominance that the Nazis put together the team Flakelf for a match on 6 August, but they lost heavily 5-1.

The so-called Death Match was a rematch, scheduled by the Germans for just three days later. They made sure to promote that they had “strengthened” their side and were out, as one of the rare surviving posters read in large lettering, for “revenge”. The details of the match are sketchy and conflicting due to there being no coverage (the embarrassed Germans wanted to ignore the result) and decades of Soviet misinformation. What can be gleaned has come from some of the 2,500 spectators. FC Start did win 5-3 and walked 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 to work. Five were dead within six months. The Soviet version claims that this was a direct response to the match, but this is highly unlikely. A set of investigations, which began in the 1970s and didn’t conclude until the 2000s, determined that no connection could be found between the Death Match and their actual deaths.

The Ukrainians were instead caught up in the widespread and brutal Nazi persecutions, having been suspected of working with the Soviet secret police or accused of other crimes. Then after the war, the survivors were suspected of collaborating with the Germans. They were political pawns, when all they wanted to be was football players. The ‘Death Match’ has since inspired the plot of several films, including the 1961 Hungarian film Two Half Times In Hell.

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This Q&A was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021