Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Dynamo Kiev's Death Match


Football doesn't tend to translate well onto the big screen. There have been several ineffective attempts to do so ranging from The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) to the laughable Mean Machine (2001), starring Vinnie Jones.

A widely anticipated exception to this rule is The Damned United from 2009. This stars the consumate actor, Michael Sheen who played David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in The Queen (2006). It relates the tale of Brian Clough's 44 day reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974 and is based on David Peace's seminal novel of the same name.
Perhaps the most remarkable football film ever made was Escape to Victory (1981). This featured a highly unlikely cast including Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie "Tottingham" Ardiles. The plot of the film seemed equally implausible.

It went as follows: In World War II, a group of Nazi officers devise a propaganda event in which an all star Nazi team play a team composed of Allied Prisoners of War in a football game. The Prisoners agree, beat the Nazis against all the odds and then use the game as a means of escape from the camp.
Pure nonsense, right?
Wrong. The story was actually based on one of the most extraordinary football matches of all time and was comprehensively detailed in Andy Dougan's compelling book (Amazon): Dynamo: Triumph and Tragedy in Nazi-Occupied Kiev

To learn about what actually happened, we need to travel back to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.
In this era and location, football started to become very popular, especially in Ukraine. The region'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 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 the German Army 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 then found themselves prisoners of war in concentration camps.
In 1942, Dynamo's keeper, Mykola Trusevych, returned to the city and began searching all over Kiev for his former team mates. Over several traumatic weeks, he was able to form a new club, F C Start, which comprised of eight players from Dynamo and three players from Lokomotiv Kiev. During 1942, FC Start played several matches with teams of soldiers of occupying garrisons, and won them all.
However, this was not entirely positive. The German administration grew aware that FC Start victories might inspire Ukrainian inhabitants and decrease the morale of Axis troops.
Consequently, the German Luftwaffe team, Flakelf, set up a match with F C Start on 9 August, 1942 at Zenit stadium. An SS officer was appointed as referee, and FC Start were aware that he would be biased against them. Although anonymous sources warned FC Start of severe punishment if they did not lose the game to the Germans, the team still 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 every dirty tactic in the book. Despite this, FC Start scored with a long shot from a free kick by the former Dynamo striker, Ivan Kuzmenko. Then, the former Dynamo winger, Makar 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 had scored another goal. Each side then scored twice in the second half. Towards the end of the match, with FC Start in an almost unbeatable position at 5-3, Oleksiy 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. At this point, the SS referee blew the final whistle before the 90 minutes were up.
The consequences were dire for the F C Start side. Shortly after the match, all the players were arrested and accused of being Soviet spies. They were tortured and either executed immediately or sent to harsh labour camps. Only three of the eleven survived the war and were responsible for the popularisation of the story in Soviet culture.
The match itself was later branded "The Death Match" and inspired both Soviet and Hungarian cinematic tributes, as well Ossie, Sly and Sir Michael's 1981 effort. Now not alot of people know that!
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  1. Fascinating! Great post, JGJ.

  2. Outside DK ground is a statute which is a tribute to DK footballers killed by Nazis. I have seen it. Brilliant post, most interesting for sure. However. Arsenal Stadium Mystery is not so bad a film, James-Guy!!

  3. A moving and fascinating story. It's hard for any of us to truly comprehend what would've been going through their heads as they took to the field that day. They must never be forgotten.


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