The Death Match

The Death Match

The Death Match was a non-official association football match between Soviet POWs - former professional footballers (mostly from Dynamo Kyiv) - and soldiers of the Nazi Germany Wehrmacht. The Soviet players defeated the Germans despite knowing what the consequences of defying them would have been. Many of the Soviet players were later arrested and sent to a labour camp where some of them died.


Football had become extremely popular in the Soviet Union, and particularly in Ukraine in the 1930s. Ukraine's strongest team of this time was Dynamo Kyiv, part of the Dynamo sports society that was funded by the trade unions, the police and the Red Army. In Soviet Russia, football was a state-sponsored activity. In 1938, Dynamo Kyiv came fourth in the national league, scoring seventy-six goals, but then came a dip in their fortunes as they performed poorly in 1939 and 1940.

The 1941 season was never completed, as Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Several Dynamo Kyiv players joined the military and went off to fight. As the Germans approached Kiev, the others who had stayed behind helped out with civil defence in the city. The initial success of Wehrmacht allowed it to capture Kiev, one of the Soviet Union's major cities, from the Red Army. Several of the Dynamo Kyiv players who had survived the onslaught found themselves prisoners of war in concentration camps.

FC Start

It was at Kiev's Bakery Number 3 that the players eventually gathered to look for work in occupied Kiev. It all started when Mykola Trusevych, Dynamo's goalkeeper returned to the city. Trusevych, was given a job as a sweeper in the bakery by Iosif Kordik, a Dynamo fan. Kordik was the bakery's new manager, who held his privileged position there because of his German origins. Kordik, a sports enthusiast, then hit on the idea of setting up a bakery football team and, in the spring of 1942, Trusevych began a search over Kiev, looking for former team mates. His first find was the tricky winger Makar Honcharenko. Honcharenko remembers the invitation:

Kolya came to me at Kreschatick Street where I was living illegally at my former mother-in-law's house. He came to me to have a chat about this idea and to find some of the other boys. We got in touch with Kuzmenko and Svyridovskiy and they contacted some of the others.
Makar Honcharenko

Over the next few weeks, FC Start (Football Club Start) was formed comprising of eight players from Dynamo (Mykola Trusevych, Mikhail Svyridovskiy, Mykola Korotkykh, Oleksiy Klimenko, Fedir Tyutchev, Mikhail Putistin, Ivan Kuzmenko, Makar Honcharenko) and three players from Lokomotiv Kiev (Vladimir Balakin, Vasil Sukharev and Mikhail Melnyk). On 7 June 1942, FC Start played its first game in the local league. The league was run by a Quisling Georgi Shvetsov, a former footballer and sports instructor, and Start's first opponents were Rukh, Shvetsov's pet team. FC Start won 7-2, despite being poorly fed and equipped.Facts|date=November 2007

During 1942, FC Start played several matches with teams of soldiers of occupying garrisons, and won them all:

The German administration grew aware that FC Start victories might inspire Ukrainian inhabitants and decrease the morale of Axis troops.

The match

The German Luftwaffe team Flakelf asked for a re-match, which was planned on 9 August at Zenit stadium. An SS officer was appointed as referee, and FC Start were aware that he would be biased against them. Some anonymous sources warned FC Start of possible punishment if they did not lose the game up to the Germans. Facts|date=November 2007 Despite this, the team decided to play as always. They also refused to give a Nazi salute to their opponents before the match.

Just as the the FC Start players expected, the Nazi referee ignored Flakelf fouls. The German team quickly targeted the goalkeeper Trusevych who, after a sustained campaign of physical challenges, was kicked in the head by a Flakelf forward and left groggy. While Trusevych was recovering, Flakelf went one goal up.

The referee continued to ignore FC Start appeals against their opponents' violence. The Flakelf team went on with their war of intimidation using all the tactics of a dirty team, going for the man not the ball, shirt-holding, and tackling from behind, as well as going over the ball. Despite this FC Start scored with a long shot from a free kick by Kuzmenko. Then Honcharenko, against the run of play, dribbled the ball around almost the entire Flakelf defence and tapped it into in the German net to make the score 2-1. By half-time, FC Start were yet another goal up.

The second half was almost an anti-climax. Each side scored twice. Towards the end of the match, with FC Start in an almost unbeatable position at 5-3, Klimenko, a defender, got the ball, beat the entire German rearguard and walked around the German goalkeeper. Then, instead of letting it cross the goal line, he turned around and kicked the ball back towards the centre circle. The SS referee blew the final whistle before the ninety minutes were up.

The story inspired two films: 1961 Hungarian film drama "Két félidő a pokolban" and 1981 American film Escape to Victory.


A week later on 16 August, Start defeated Rukh again, this time 8-0. Soon after that, a number of the FC Start players were arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, allegedly for being NKVD members (as Dynamo was a police-funded club). One of the arrested players Mykola Korotkykh died under torture. The rest were sent to the Syrets labour camp, where Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksey Klimenko, and the goalkeeper Mykola Trusevich were later killed in February 1943. The few survivors included Fedir Tyutchev, Mikhail Sviridovskiy and Makar Honcharenko who are responsible for the popularisation of this story in Soviet popular culture.


On 16 November 1943, Izvestiya was the first newspaper to report the execution of the sportsmen by the Germans, though the match itself was not mentioned.

The "Death Match" came to public attention in 1958, after Petro Severov published the article "The Last Duel" in the "Evening Kiev" newspaper. The following year Severov, together with Naum Khalemsky, published a book with the same name, that told the story of FC Start and its struggle against the Nazi occupiers. Memoirs by Makar Honcharenko followed.

The story became widely popular in the Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine, and was romanticized. Two movies - "Third Time" (Mosfilm, 1964) and "The Match of Death" were filmed, based on this story. A sculpture composition was erected in Kiev in Zenit stadium, which was renamed to Start stadium (Kiev) in 1981.

ee also

*Escape to Victory


*Andy Dougan 2002, Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev, Fourth Estate, London
*Sheila Fitzpatrick 1999, Everyday Stalinism, OUP, Oxford
*Eduardo Galeano 1997, Football in Sun and in Shadow, Fourth Estate, London
*John Keegan 1989, The Second World War, Pimlico, London
*Aino Kuusinen 1974, Before and After Stalin, Joseph, London
*Richard Overy 1997, Russia's War, Allen Lane, London

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