A remarkable saga of heroic resistance to the Nazis — on the soccer field — has been brought back into the public eye by a new film and a new historically based novel, and is sparking disagreement and argument seven decades after the event.
The so-called “Death Match” took place 70 years ago this month, a year after the Nazis captured Kiev, and pitted ex-Soviet soldiers, many of whom had played professionally for local side Dynamo Kiev, against a German Luftwaffe (air force) team.
The local Kiev team, FC Start, had been assembled by Nikolai Trusevich, Dynamo’s former goalkeeper, one of hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans, who had been released and was working in a local bakery. Trusevich rounded up many of his former teammates and formed a team which — after a debate over whether they were legitimizing Nazi rule by enabling the normalizing practice of competitive soccer — entered a local ad hoc soccer league in early summer 1942.
“We do not have weapons,” Trusevich was quoted as saying in a 2002 book on the period, “Dynamo: Triumph and tragedy in Nazi-occupied Kiev,” by Andy Dougan, “but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch.”
Unsurprisingly, the team of ex-pros was far too good for its opposition — which included various soldiers’ teams and a railway workers’ side in its first few matches. Then came an invitation to play a German Luftwaffe team. And here is where a definitive version of what happened next is hard to establish.
According to the account offered in a Russian-funded movie called “Match,” released earlier this year, the Kiev players beat the Luftwaffe despite being warned repeatedly that it was in their existential interest to lose, and some of them were killed for failing to throw the game. Other accounts suggest that two or even three games were played, in early August 1942, with the heroic Ukrainians prevailing in them all, and are colored by details of corrupt German referees, dressing-room shouting matches, and even executions on or near the field of play soon after the final whistle.
In his impressive, fact-based novel on the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, entitled “HHhH” (a translation of the epithet “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) the French writer Laurent Binet offers the version that, he says, “seems the most credible to me.” Binet, whose book was published in English in April, incorporates many of the elements from other accounts, sifting out those he deems unproven.
He writes of two games — which some other accounts place on August 6 and August 9. Before the first game, the Germans lift their arms and shout “Heil Hitler,” but the Ukrainians, in Binet’s telling, rather than following suit, bang their chests and shout “long live physical culture” — a slogan with Soviet connotations that “sends the crowd wild.” A Kiev player almost immediately has his leg broken, and the team is down to 10 men. Yet after falling a goal behind, the Kiev players score, and then they take a 2-1 lead at half-time.
At this point, General Eberhardt, the German commandant of Kiev, enters the dressing room, tells the players that they have “played an excellent game,” but warns them they had better lose in the second half. “You really must! The Luftwaffe team has never lost before, certainly not in any of the occupied territories. This is an order! If you do not lose, you will be executed!”
The Kiev players listen in silence, make an unspoken decision to ignore the warning, and wind up winning 5-1.
In Binet’s account, the replay comes three days later — by which time the Luftwaffe have brought in professional reinforcements. Now SS troops are patrolling the packed Kiev stadium. The German score first, again … but the Kiev team ultimately wins, again — by 5-3 this time. “At the final whistle, the Ukrainian supporters are ecstatic but the players look pale. The pitch is invaded, and in the confusion three Ukrainian players disappear; they will survive the war. The rest of the team is arrested and four of them are sent immediately to Babi Yar” — where the Nazis had murdered 33,771 Jews the previous September — “where they are executed. On his knees at the edge of the ditch, Nikolai Trusevich — the captain and goalkeeper — manages to yell, before getting a bullet in the back of the neck: “Communist sport will never die!” The other players are murdered one by one. Today, there is a monument to them in front of Dynamo’s stadium.”
A widely disseminated Soviet version of the saga limits it to a single game, which the Kiev players refused to lose, and for which they were arrested as soon as the final whistle blew, with many of them executed still in their red players’ uniforms.
A BBC report at the end of June claimed to have established that these kinds of accounts of the “Death Match” and its fatal consequences were largely myth, a saga embellished by the Soviets for propaganda purposes. In fact, though, the BBC report winds up confirming many of the salient details.
The BBC report asserts that “no evidence” has ever been produced of dark warnings being issued to the players to lose. It also says the Soviet claim that the players were shot, still in their uniforms, immediately after prevailing over the Germans is false — and that those players who survived dared never defy the Soviet authorities by countering it. But it does acknowledge that the players were arrested, some sent to a concentration camp and others killed.
The BBC report, which includes interviews with elderly locals from Kiev who attended the games, indicates that the first game, on August 6, was a fairly unremarkable victory by the Kiev team — except that it produced a determined German desire to stage a rematch and win it.
“It was very important for the German team to win,” a local journalist tells the BBC. Scheduling what a poster for the game called a “revenge” match just three days after the first game would not have given the already under-nourished ex-Soviet soldiers’ team much time to recover. But recover they did. In the BBC account, as in the Binet telling, the Kiev players win again, by 5-3.
Rather than being taken off and shot, however, says the BBC report, the team played another game, against a team of Ukrainian nationals, on August 16 — and won that, too: 8-0.
For all its skeptical tone, the BBC report actually shows much of the essence of the remarkable “Death Match” resistance story to be well-founded. It acknowledges that “soon after” that 8-0 victory, the Kiev players were “arrested and interrogated. Why that happened is hard to say for sure,” says the BBC reporter, shying away from the obvious explanation that the would-be invincible Germans had seen more than enough of the indomitable FC Start soccer team. “But what we do know,” he continues, “is that these four men represented on the statue (in Kiev) died” and that “most of the players ended up in the concentration camp” in the nearby Syrets neighborhood.
Nikolai Korotkykh, one of the quartet on the statue, who may have been a Soviet security officer, was apparently tortured to death, according to his daughter, and the other three were shot dead in Nazi mass executions, the BBC report says.
The “Death Match” partially inspired a Hollywood movie in 1981 — a John Huston-directed prisoner escape yarn that made no pretense to be historically accurate. This year, it inspired “Match,” a largely Russian-government funded effort, whose producers call it a “historical patriotic drama” and whose release this spring was initially set to be held back by a few weeks because it was feared it might stir up anti-German and other ethnic tensions at the time of the Ukrainian-hosted European soccer championships.
As Binet acknowledges, there are “an unbelievable number of different versions of this legendary ‘death match’.” But despite the probable Soviet embroiderings, and the subsequent refutations, as Binert notes, “all the versions share the same broad outline.”
The same broad, heroic outline.