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War-time death match

June 6, 2012

In summer 1942, Ukrainian and German soccer teams met in Kyiv. The Wehrmacht was marched in. This was no ordinary soccer match – one side was the occupiers, the other the occupied.

Death match in the shadow of war
Image: dapd

August 1942. For over a year, the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine had been occupied by Nazi soldiers. So-called "task forces" implemented a reign of terror. Hundreds of thousands of civilians - above all communists and Jews - were murdered.

The initial excitement of part of the population, which had hoped that the Germans would liberate them from Soviet communism, was long dead.

Fear and hunger ruled the city. Kyiv's Jewish community was obliterated. Over 30,000 people had been shot during the massacre at Baby Yar in September the previous year. Local collaborators were involved in the executions. The events were unprecedented.

German humiliation

German soldiers, poised with rifle guns, look down a shaded city street in the Soviet city of Kiev, third largest in the country, Sept. 21, 1941, during Nazi occupation in World War II
The German Wehrmacht occupied Kyiv in 1941Image: AP

To raise morale - so the occupying forces let it be known - a series of soccer matches was planned in summer 1942. It was a cynically calculated act, designed to demonstrate "normality" in the shadow of occupation. A team of German soldiers played on one side, on the other the players of FC Start, reportedly a sports group from a Kyiv bread factory.

But behind the seemingly innocuous name were some of the best soccer players in Ukraine - top sportsmen who had previously played for the disbanded clubs Dynamo Kyiv and FC Lokomotive. They had already swept to victory over a team of 11 German air force officers. Now the Germans wanted revenge.

The stands in the Zenit Stadium were packed full. Not only Wehrmacht and SS uniforms could be seen in the audience; Kyiv residents were also there. A curiously ambivalent atmosphere must have reigned on that hot summer day. By half-time, the Ukrainian team was winning 3:1, despite massive fouls made by the Germans and a partisan German referee. Native Ukrainians had cause for celebration.

At the end of the match, ignoring all threats, the humiliation of the Germans was complete. Ukraine won 5:3.

A flyer advertising the match between German occupying forces and the Ukrainians
A flyer advertising the match between German occupying forces and the Ukrainians

What happened next remains unclear to this day. It is known that a number of Kyiv soccer players were imprisoned a few days after the match. Historians doubt whether it had anything to with the soccer game. One of the players worked for the Soviet secret service and as a result found himself in the clutches of the Gestapo. He died in prison.

Many others, including goalkeeper Mykola Trusevych, were sent to the Syrets concentration camp, tortured and later shot. The exact circumstances are not clear, and whether the game really was a "death match" under the threat "lose or die" also remains unconfirmed. On a group photo taken shortly after the match, both teams look relatively relaxed.

Myth making

Nevertheless, the Soviet propaganda machine created numerous legends regarding the Kyiv 11 after the Second World War. The players were posthumously declared heroes and were awarded medals. The 1962 film "The Third Time" went a step further. It portrayed the players as courageous patriots, risking their lives against the Fascist enemy, only to be executed en masse. A legend was born.

"All of us still know the legend today," said Ukrainian journalist Sachar Butyrsky. "I heard about it as a child. The interesting thing is that the few surviving players were ignored and forgotten. They destroyed the hero mythology. Until perestroika, it was not acceptable to get to the facts of the matter. The propaganda image of the evil Germans was needed during the Cold War."

Three sculptures in front of the Dynamo Stadium in Kyiv now serve as memorials to the players.

One of three memorial sculptures to the executed Ukrainian players
One of three memorial sculptures to the executed Ukrainian playersImage: cc-by-sa/Erstmalklarkommen

While in Ukraine the death match players are known by name and venerated, the German players remain unknown. They were, of course, Nazi soldiers. Director Claus Bredenbrock made it the subject of a documentary film in 2005. He had tried without success to find eye-witnesses.

"A large number of allies who worked in Kyiv in 1942 were later transferred to Stalingrad. Of those, very few soldiers survived. With regards to the others, I can imagine that those who were involved and did survive have no real need to discuss it in public," Bredenbrock said.

In 1973, what was then West Germany first became aware of the death match and its consequences. Back then, it was believed that the Ukrainian players were executed directly after the match. The Hamburg Public Prosecutors Office opened an investigation on the basis that war crimes could have been committed. The investigation has so far failed to reach a verdict.

"A new investigation was opened as we were filming because there is no statute of limitation for murder. But in order to prosecute someone for murder, you obviously need concrete proof and a concrete perpetrator. We can't reconstruct these even," remembered Bredenbrock.

Cultural Park Babi Yar where the massacre of 33,000 Jews from Kyiv by German units on 29 & 30 September 1941, occured, is now a cultural park.
The Babi Yar Memorial at the site of the massacre of over 30,000 Jews from Kyiv in 1941Image: picture alliance/akg-images

Documentary film

For the filmmaker, one thing is clear: The soccer game took place within a specific political context. It is part of the history of German occupation and murder:

"Four out of a total of nine imprisoned players paid for the win with their lives, another had already died in the Gestapo headquarters," commented the filmmaker. A connection between the match and the imprisonments must be assumed: "There is no other explanation as to why the players were suddenly jailed, who up to that point had taken part in a series of games."

Now a new Russian film is causing controversy. "Match" by Andrej Maljukov had a delayed opening in Ukraine. It is rumored to be a new version of a film from 1962.

"All the old clichés will be shown. The evil, Ukrainian-speaking people of Kyiv who collaborated with Nazis, the traitors, who occupied the emergency and police services and on the other hand the good Russian-speaking patriots who are friends of Moscow," said Sachar Butyrsky.

But director Claus Bredenbrock sees the controversy as an opportunity. Until now, the question of collaboration has insufficiently entered the national consciousness. "The wholehearted research of this historical epoch - if at all - has only just begun."

Cornelia Rabitz / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen