Monday, August 4, 2008

The Death Match, Soviet Propaganda and the Luftwaffe

The anniverssary of the so called 'Death Match' occurs this week, as it took place on August 9th 1942. The match took place between FC Start from Kyiv and a Luftwaffe team called Flakelf, the Ukrainians winning the game 5-3.

FC Start was a team formed in the war by a few professionial footballers who had stayed behind to fight in Kyiv. The central point was a bakery that some of them worked at. The backbone of the team was made up of Dynamo players, but there were also players from Lokomotiv Kyiv represented too. It is a common misconception that it was Dynamo Kyiv who played in the death match, as despite the fact that most of the team were from Dynamo before the war this team was called FC Start. They wore red shirts to stir up emotions and show that they were representing the USSR.

FC Start came to prominence in the Kyiv League that took place during the early days of the war and their form against both other Ukrainian clubs and army garrisons led to them being challenged by the Luftwaffe's invincible (or so they though) Flakelf team. It has to be remembered that the Flakelf players were well fed and trained compared with their Ukrainian counterparts who were virtually starving. However, the Germans didn't get things their own way, as FC Start won the game 5-0.

The Luftwaffe were having none of this though and hastily re-arranged the match for August 9th 1942. This time they flew in some other professionals who were fighting in different branches of the Armed Forces and insisted on their own referee, who it seems was unable to spot fouls on the Start players. However, Flakelf were again humiliated this time 5-3, with their humiliation being compounded when the right back Oleksiy Klymenko rounded the Flakelf keeper, stopped the ball on the line and then hoofed it back up field. The cheeky sod!

Now, if I saw this happening to my team and I had a gun I would probably have wanted to shoot him too. The story that was propogated by Stalin after the war was that this is what exactly happened. The players were rounded-up and shot immediately. Other stories said that the Germans were even having pot-shots at the players during the game. These stories became so entangled in the mythology of the Soviet Union that many people, including some of my friends believe that the match never happened at all.

What actually happened was that Mykola Korotkykh, one of the main players for FC Start was arrested and tortured for 20 days before being killed. The other players were also rounded up in the next few months and sent to Babi Yar concentration camp. It has been suggested that officials from a Lviv team who were Nazi sympathisers, and who were jealous of the skills and celebrity of the Start players actually pleaded with the Germans to have them arrested.

What is clear is that the players, who were relatively fit survived for 6 months in the concentration camp and that it was only when the camp leader decided to have every third prisoner shot in repraisals for damaged machinery on the camp that they died. This was when heroes Klymenko, Kuzmenko and Trusevich were shot. It must also be pointed out that at this time the Soviet Army were pushing the Germans back and were soon to arrive in Kyiv and it was quite handy to have the players shot rather than to have them as living heroes that the Soviet propoganda machine could manipulate. One of the other players, Komorov disappeared and it's believed that he had 'shopped' some of his team mates.

The game took place at Zenit Stadium, which has since been renamed Start Stadium. Today it is used for kids matches, informal tournaments and general kick abouts.

Top: Entrance to Start Stadium
Middle: Start Stadium today
Bottom: Monument to the heroes of the game

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