The 1981 sports war movie Escape to Victory, starring Hollywood icons like Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine alongside footballing legend Pele is based on a true event which took place in Ukraine during World War Two. The basic concept is that a football team is instructed to lose a game and is threatened with murder if they don’t comply. The film renders a westernised version of an actual game of football remembered as the “death match” played between a local football team in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, FC Start, and a German artillery unit team.
Adolf Hitler authorised Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, initiating an invasion of the Soviet Union that violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement that the two countries had only signed two years earlier. After a violent and murderous siege, the German army took control of Kyiv, a crucial component of the Nazis’ post-war expansion strategy, in less than three months.
When reflecting on the deaths and sacrifices made during World War Two, our outlook can perhaps naturally tend towards western insularity.
In contrast to the true human cost of war to tens of millions of people around the world, statistics are cold and impersonal. In this specific period of history, Ukraine’s sacrifices and death toll are unparalleled. With an estimated 20–27 million dead during World War Two, the Soviet Union by far experienced the largest loss of human life in any country. Unsurprisingly, these losses weren’t divided equally over the enormous territory of the USSR. In actuality, they were mostly concentrated in Ukraine, where Ukrainians bore close to 40% of the total Soviet death toll. According to the Oxford Companion to World War Two, more than one-sixth of the population of Ukraine—at least 7 million people—died during the conflict. The actual figure, though, is probably much higher.
Although exact death toll estimates are hard to find and ultimately impossible to determine, the population decreased from 41.7 million before the war to 27.4 million by its conclusion in 1945. The conflict caused enormous damage to the country that is virtually unmatched anyplace else in the world.
The main causes of the misery in Ukraine at the time included mass executions, the expansion of the holocaust, war-related fatalities of soldiers and civilians, and famines. This is the context we need to keep in mind while diving into the folklore and myth surrounding the “death match”.
FC Start – the symbol of Ukraine
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 an 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 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 and 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, were 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 and 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 footballers.
The clash between FC 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 ‘legend’ of the Death Match
The lack of historical data from that dark times and the overarching influence of the Soviet propaganda machinery makes the entire event even more intriguing and turns an apparent historical incident into a ‘legend’.
The second fixture was held just three days after the first. By half-time, the score was 3-1 in favour of Start. According to some accounts, at the break, a German officer entered Start’s dressing room and delivered a chilling message that echoed – ‘there are only Germans who can win today’. He then moved to the room where the Flakelf players were having a rest and said that they must win today and prove the superiority of the Aryan race.
Although Flakelf equalized in the second half, Start scored twice towards the end, defying their occupiers’ demands and prevailing 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 its later acquired title ‘The Death Match’ comes from. On that evening, the FC Start players gathered alongside their coach, Mikhail Putin, 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 to avoid any embarrassment for the Third Reich. On August 18, 1942, all the FC 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. There are several conflicting stories and unproven theories about the outcome. In some accounts, not all the players were arrested on that day.
In 1943, the Izvestia newspaper was the first to call that game The Death Match. Since then the match has acquired legendary status, surrounded by various fantasies. In 1964 some of its winners were awarded 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 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 for Ukrainian patriotism, and an everlasting blow to the Nazi ideals of fascism and Aryan dominance.