Article by Rob Dillon. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.
‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.’ Gary Lineker, 4th July 1990.
Today, the concept of sport as a political tool is by no means a new one. Many football fans are familiar with the conflict between working men’s clubs and establishment sides – working class Boca Juniors and the millionaires of River Plate, Atletico’ s rebels and regime-backed Real Madrid, ‘people’s club’ Spartak and police team Dinamo Moscow. The two codes of rugby have long been seen as an indicator of the class divide in the UK, whilst in Germany, second tier football club St. Pauli have attracted international attention for their politics, their left-wing slogans and punk culture in the face of neo-fascist hooliganism, turning them into one of the game’s most controversial clubs.
In the Cold War, every aspect of life became an ideological battle between the world’s two superpowers, but with the United States preferring baseball and her own version of football to the global game favoured by the Soviet Union, there was little opportunity for the two sides to come into conflict. Ice hockey provided the battlefield for the two nations to wage sporting war, and more often than not it was the Soviets who came out on top – not only did the all-powerful USSR team featuring the likes of legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretyak and lethal forward Valeri Kharlamov win 19 of the 30 World Championships it participated in, its leading club teams took part in a number of ‘Super Series’ events against the top National Hockey League clubs. Of the 18 series played, the Soviet representative emerged victorious on 14 occasions; a decisive victory given that all the competitions took place on North American soil.
Even before the Cold War, rival powers were not adverse to using sport as a means of highlighting their superiority, and in some cases justifying their policies. Mussolini’s Italy instigated a series of reforms placing emphasis on physical recreation, and was vindicated as the national football team claimed the World Cup in 1934 and again four years later. More famously, the Munich Olympics in 1936 were used by the ruling Nazi Party as a demonstration of their perceived Aryan superiority, a notion cast into doubt by the incredible performance of African-American athlete Jesse Owens. Owens claimed gold medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay events, leaving Adolf Hitler privately suggesting that black athletes should be banned from future events due to their apparent physical advantage.
However, under wartime conditions, the extent to which sport could be used was once again pushed beyond its previous boundaries. In 1938, Dinamo Kyiv had established themselves as Ukraine’s strongest football club, claiming 4th place in the fledging Soviet Top League and finishing above their national rivals in the following two seasons. With the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Soviet football season was understandably cut short, and players, managers and fans alike took to service, either as volunteers and conscripts in the Red Army, or as civilian partisans in the occupied territories. With Kyiv falling to the invading Germans as early as September, many of the Dinamo team found themselves in the latter role, with the majority of the squad captured by Nazi forces.
By chance, Dinamo goalkeeper Mykola Trusevych found himself forced to work as a cleaner in a bakery owned by a Dinamo fan with German roots, and in the first half of 1942 the idea of setting up a football team both emerged and was implemented. In total, eight Dinamo players, combined with a handful from Lokomotiv Kyiv, came together to form FC Start, and despite worries about collaboration, the bakery team entered the local league.
A number of huge wins later – an 11-0 hammering of the local Romanian garrison their most comfortable success – the new team gained the attention of the Nazi authorities, who were keen not to let the Dinamo players raise public morale with their victories. On 9th August, Start were scheduled to play Flakelf, a team from the Luftwaffe, just three days after they had beaten them 5-1. This time, however, the match was guarded, and publicised as a revenge match between the two teams.
The line between myth and reality regarding the match has become increasingly blurred over time – according to various reports, the SS referee did or did not enter the Start dressing room before kick-off to explain the consequences of victory, the Ukrainians gave or refused to give the Nazi salute, and the officials were fair or biased wholly towards the German side, which consisted of a different and stronger group of players to the team beaten earlier that week. At half time, in spite of any unfair officiating, Start led 3-1, and some sources suggest that it was at this point that the Ukrainians were made aware of the implications of winning the match. Nevertheless, they re-emerged and secured a 5-3 victory, the Nazis’ humiliation complete when defender Alexey Klimenko opted to kick the ball back into play after rounding the German goalkeeper.
Again, finding some form of truth in a story immortalised by the local population is difficult, but what is certain is that four members of the team were arrested and died shortly afterwards. However, this is more likely to be as a result of Dinamo’s affiliation with the NKVD, the USSR’s secret police, than a direct consequence of their sporting success. Others lived to tell the tale, and its popularisation in Kyiv and wider Ukraine has seen others inspired; the 1981 film ‘Escape To Victory,’ starring Sylvester Stallone, Bobby Moore and Pele amongst others the clearest example.
Whether you choose to believe the revolutionary version of events or the less radical alternative, the story of Dinamo’s ‘Death Match’ is a clear message as to the power of sport as propaganda, whether as harmless one-upmanship or something with far more serious consequences. As ever, where you draw the line can determine more than a simple sporting allegiance.
- Between the 1956 and 1988 olympics, the Soviet Union’s Ice Hockey team Won Gold 7 out of 9 times.
- Olymipic boycotts were used many times during the 1970s and 80s as a protest against the participation of apartheid South Africa.
- The film ‘Escape to Victory’, dramatising of FC Start changed the nationalities of the players to Western European and American in order to make the story more marketable for cinema audiences.
- In 2005, the prosecution office in Hamburg closed the case of the ‘Death Match’ between FC Start and Flakelf, saying there was no evidence to show that FC Start players were executed for being victorious.
- General Franco openly supported Real Madrid, and put large amounts of Spain’s state reserves into the team.