After a cruel and bloody siege that lasted for 72 days, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s capital, Kyiv, was occupied by the Nazis in September 1941. In a attempt to not look like brutal tyrants in the eyes of the local population, the Nazi government tried to create the illusion of a prosperous life by organising various cultural events and incorporating sports into the daily life of the ordinary citizen.
At that time, several of Kyiv’s footballers were given jobs at the Kyiv Bread Factory. In total, there were nine of them: three represented Dynamo Kyiv, while the others were from Spartak Odessa, Lokomotiv Kyiv and other capital clubs.
These players formed a factory’s team which eventually became FC Start. Aside from the aforementioned former professionals, their squad consisted of a chef, a guard and three policemen.
At the same time, another club, Ruch, was formed in the city of Kyiv. Georgi Shvetsov, the founder of Ruch, was aware of the Dynamo players’ quality, invited them to join his side. However, They refused the invitation, knowing that Shvetsov was a Nazi accomplice and therefore his club,which was compiled of law enforcement officials and workers from factories, was a pro-Nazi organisation. The contrasting ideologies at Start and Ruch, one a side of patriots, the other a club of sympathizers, was plainly obvious. For many, the two clubs’ existence was symbolically Ukraine versus Germany.
At the beginning of the Nazi rule in Kyiv, football was only intended for the Germans and their allies, yet Start impressed everyone with their performances. They comprehensively defeated every opponent they encountered – including a 7-2 humiliation of Ruch, 6-2 against the Hungarian garrison’s team but their greatest triumph came against their oppressors and imprinted FC Start in history.
At the time, a German artillery unit’s football team called Flakelf was considered the best team in Europe by the Third Reich. The team was made up of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners, pilots and mechanical engineers from the Kyiv airfield. Flakelf was personally supervised by Hermann Goring, who forbade sending the players to the battlefront as they were among Germany’s most talented footballs.
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 additions 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 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.
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.
However, 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.
However, at the end of the match the rivals took a photo together 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 it’s 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, the authorities 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.
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.
Whatever the actual facts surrounding the remarkable Death Match, it remains one of the most politically-charged, fascinating and vicious matches in the history of the beautiful game. It also serves as a great stand of Ukrainian patriotism, and an everlasting blow to the Nazi ideals of fascism and Aryan dominance.