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“If you win, we will kill you”: The Tragic Story of the Death Match

Oliver McManus has a look at the incredible story of the Death Match where 11 brave men stood up to the Nazi regime on a football pitch

“Lose this match, or we’ll kill you”. Well, I needn’t think twice as to what I’d do in that situation, I’m making sure I lose that match any which way possible. Let us go on a journey, on a walk, to Kiev at the pinnacle of the Second World War.

It’s 1942 and with the German army, led by Hitler, advancing across most of Europe, the allies were close to succumbing to Nazi occupation but in an outright portrayal of arrogance Hitler decided that he would display his military prowess and pit his troops against Russia. With forces marching towards Eastern Europe they would firstly reach Ukraine, with the army running into the ground any opposition that they came across – soon enough they would reach Kiev without fear of challenge.

Citizens were promptly rounded into town centres with the echoing decrees from the German military booming from the speakers much to the derision of the, by then, German ruled residents. Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt, Major General and effective leader, made the decision that Kiev was too populous to be trusted with peace, so he set about executing the most notable people in society.

Nonetheless he still needed to keep a certain calm amid the “ordinary” citizens of Kiev and decided upon rounding up the best football players in the city before testing their skills against a German-military team.

Now prior to this happening there was a more symbolic form of Ukraine versus Germany between a bakery and a factory– obviously with the war having raged on for some time prior to the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, football was no longer a profession but a hobby.

A young man named Joseph Kordik, Czech-born, was director at “Kyiv Bread Factory No 1” when he met Nikolai Trusevich – a goalkeeper born in Odessa, with professional history at Dynamo Kyiv. The two got thinking and quickly formed a football team – called Start- with fellow workers who just happened to be 9 other formerly professional footballers.

Across the city there was another club being set up at the exact same time as Start – Georgi Shvetsov, founder of Ruch FC tried to poach the former Dynamo Kyiv players away from Start. Knowing that Shvetsov was strongly linked to the Nazi regime, the players rejected his advances. Instead policeman and factory workers were signed up to an unashamedly pro-Nazi team essentially used for propaganda. Nonetheless the political differences ricocheted through society and a rivalry was inevitable.

I appreciate I’m getting away from the main story I’m trying to tell but I wanted to give you some contextual background and, indeed, it serves as a nice bit of foreshadowing for what unfolded next.

For the first few months of Nazi rule, football was an activity that only Aryans were permitted to play – the lives of everyone else essentially consisted of labour. Despite this order the Germans couldn’t help but be impressed by the form of Start – 20 goals in 3 games against Ruch, a team of Hungarians and a German artillery unit – and sent their best team, considered impregnable, to compete against the Ukrainians.

One can’t help but question the political motives behind such a move, was it purely for morale boosting reasons or was it to serve as a metaphorical crushing of the opposition – either way, for the Germans, not all was to go to plan.

The German team was known as “Flakelf”, an abbreviation of Fliegerabwehrkanone Elf meaning, quite literally, Air Defense Artillery Eleven and lived by the motto “ein volk, ein reich, ein fuhrer” – one nation, one empire, one leader.

The thing about Flakelf is that they weren’t the first German team that Kiev played, they were very much a desperate attempt to restore belief in the Nazi regime – over the months Start dismantled the regular army teams put in front of them – it was diplomatic embarrassment for Hitler – Flakelf were brought in to put the Ukrainians back in their box.

Occurring on the 6th August 1942, the first clash between the two teams received comparatively little media attention so it’s hard to actually go into detail about what happened so here is what we know for certain.

The Germans were represented by the following, known only by their surnames – Harer, Danz, Schneider, Biskur, Scharf, Kaplan, Breuer, Arnold, Jannasch, Wunderlich and Hoffman – they were playing against a team that hadn’t trained in months but the talent of Start was hard to deny. Going into half-time trailing 1-0, Eberhardt was displeased and attempted to deter the Ukrainians with a half-time speech telling them they would be executed if they lost – the literal antithesis of a pep talk – but Start were having none of it, playing in stadium entirely filled by German soldiers, they showed such bravery in winning 4-1.

As they walked off the pitch, pot-shots were fired in their direction, they sat in the dressing room fully aware of their fate. Eberhardt did not bang down their door.

News quickly reached Germany, the government insisting on a rematch. As punishment for the Kiev players, they were banned from training and their rations greatly reduced, now 3 or 5 days later (no-one seems to know for sure) they were to meet Flakelf again, at the same location, but this time with the distinct words of “if you win, we will kill you” ringing in their ears. No wonder this became known as The Death Match.

So the 9th August, the rematch, it was literally do or die. Before the game took place an unexpected visitor entered the Start dressing room, addressing the squad in perfect Russian, an SS Officer proclaimed “I am the referee… do not break any of the rules and, before the game, greet your opponents in our fashion”. A less than subtle message to reinforce not only that they were meant to lose, emphatically, but to abide by the rules of Nazi society.

A crowd of some 2,000 packed into the stadium having paid a princely 5 rubles for the privilege – or displeasure, depending on your own spiritual bent – and as the players stepped out onto the pitch, an excited roar rippled through the fans.

Flakelf were first up with loud shouts of “Heil Hitler”, drawing vociferous approval from the minority German support. FC Start raised their hands aloft, much to the delight of the Nazi delegates, before rapidly slamming them back to their chests with the patriotically Soviet cry of “FizcultHura” – cue an absolute eruption from the Ukrainian spectators, their political defiance proudly on display.

Upon the first whistle it was clear that Flakelf cared little for the rules of football, going in hard with tackles showing scant regard for the ball with the referee displaying OJ Simpson-worthy levels of denial. They even tackled the goalkeeper so badly that when the German scored the first goal of the game, eyewitnesses reported as “seeing starts” – obviously not to be interpreted literally.

Adapting to the physicality, Start gave tit-for-tat and when they were eventually given a free-kick, Kuzmenko stepped forward with a delightful free-kick. Goncharenko was up next, cutting in from the wing before tapping in easy second. A third was to follow quickly as they entered interval 3-1 up, much to the delight of the rapturous crowd.

A half-time from hell was to follow, Shvetsov was first into the dressing him telling the team to lose the match with a degree of compassion to his voice. An SS Officer followed, menace in his voice, going into detail about what would happen if they maintained their lead.

The players weren’t backing down – this was more than just about football, this was a symbol to Ukraine, indeed to Europe, that if these 11 players can so boldly and brazenly stand up to the supposed might of the Iron First then there was hope that could be one. Indeed, in a bizarre turn of events, the Germans were cowed into taming their physical aggression, both teams scored twice in the second half resulting in a 5-3 win for Start.

As if that wasn’t enough Klimenko, a defender for the Ukrainians found a way past the defence and the keeper, with an open goal, before turning his back on the Nazi flag that hung above the crossbar, whacking the ball towards the centre circle. If pictures could speak, then that would say a thousand words.

A week would go by with no consequence, on the 16th August the team would beat Ruch 8-0. Two days later, six of the Start players were arrested as they worked in the bakery – a further two were detained on the 20th.

Olexander Tkachenko was the first victim, trying to escape the arrest, he was shot by the SS, his mother unaware of the fatal consequences, visited the police station with a warm meal only to find that her son had died.

Nikolai Korotkykh was the next, himself a member of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, he was tortured by the Gestapo to the extent that he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The others were placed in concentration camps, largely in solitary confinement – situated near Babi Yar, the outskirts of Kiev. Nikola Trusevich, Alexi Klimenko and Ivan Kuzmenko were assigned as construction workers; Pavlo Komarov, Mikhail Putistin and Fedor Tyutchev were electricians; Makar Honcharenko and Mikhailo Sviridovsky worked in shoe repair.

Six months into their spells of hard labour, Trusevich, Kuzmenko and Klimenko were among a group of prisoners executed on the 24th February 1943 and there were conflicting reports as to why the execution happened – obviously they were in jail as a more direct result of the football match – but some said they had beaten to death the dog of a camp guard, others said they simply refused to hang other prisoners found attempting to escape.

When news reached Honcharenko and Sviridovsky in the shoe factory, they fled and hid in the apartment of friends in Kiev. Putistin and Tyutchev followed in September 1943 and avoided persecution until the end of the war when they were safe to live their once normal lives.

The one name missing from that is Pavlo Komarov who decided to leave with the Germans, no-one knowing really knowing if he was forced or if he joined them as a collaborator. Nonetheless, he ended up emigrating to Canada.

Come the end of the war the total was 5 dead, 1 converted, 5 alive. But that wasn’t the final score, if you’ll pardon the abhorrent cliché of a pun, what Start achieved was incredible. They inspired a nation to rally against Hitler, not physically, but mentally. It gave them hope, small acts of defiance in society that would grind the Nazis down.

Ukraine to this day carries that spirit, the match is used frequently as propaganda either for hope or to stir up hatred, I’m not sure, but it rouses the nation. Whilst the story has, probably, been altered somewhat over the years, the facts are the same. And they’re astonishing.

People say football isn’t life or death and they’re usually right but this was an exception. If you visit the stadium today, you’ll get a guided tour and be able to bask in the aura, pay your respects at the almighty statue commemorating the players

It’s hard to know how to end this article because in a world where Frank de Boer is getting sacked after 4 games, everything seems trivial in comparison to The Death Match. So Olexander Tkachenko, Nikolai Korotkykh, Nikola Trusevich, Alexi Klimenko and Ivan Kuzmenko, here’s to you and your incredible sacrifice that will go down in history, in legend and myth.

Oliver McManus

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