Ukrainian Football during World War II

Without sounding obvious, World War II was a bad time for Europe. The Eastern front saw some of the bloodiest battles as the Germans advanced East towards the Soviet capital of Moscow. One of those such battles occurred at the siege of Kiev – a battle that took place from August 7th to September 26th, 1941. The German Army launched Operation Barbarossa (in an attempt to invade the Soviet Union) where nearly all of the Southwestern front of the Red Army was surrounded. During the month and a half stand-off around 665,000 people were captured, with 700,544 casualties.

A bill advertising the match between FC Start and Flakelf.
A bill advertising the match between FC Start and Flakelf.

There are many things written on the topic, but the SS did go after footballers who at the time were seen as a powerful propaganda tool. One of the most controversial accounts is the Death Match that took place between FC Start and Falkeff. The result would be catastrophic for a group of players and depending on the report or book you read, either four or five players were killed as a result.

Football had become very popular in the Soviet Union by 1930, and lead to a top flight Soviet league by 1936. However, most footballing competitions had been around since the establishment of the Russian Empire in 1900. Most of the clubs that competed in the league were named after Governmental Departments such as Lokomotiv who represented the Transportation Department and Dynamo the Police.

After taking the Ukrainian city of Kiev, the Germans enforced a strict regime during their occupation of the city. Universities and schools were shut down and only in 1942 a four-year school for the local population was introduced. During the occupation everyone from the ages of 15-60 were required to perform labour obligations.

With locals understandably hostile to the new regime, Major Eberhardt decided that football was any easy way to placate the massive population of Kiev, and spared the lives of the Dynamo and the Lokomotiv players. A team call FC Start was formed which was mostly made up of employee’s of Bread Factory Number 1.

The footballers were part of that workforce and the new team included players from both clubs. Nikolai Trusevych, Mikhail Svyridovskiy, Nikolai Korotkykh, Oleksiy Klimenko, Fedir Tyutchev, Mikhail Putistin, Ivan Kuzmenko, and Makar Honcharenko were the representatives from Dynamo Kyiv and three players from city rivals Lokomotiv Kyiv (Vladimir Balakin, Vasil Sukharev and Mikhail Melnyk) made up the team.

Members of FC Start – a ‘Kiev All-Stars’ team.

There is a lot of mystery that surrounds the series of matches against the Germans and their Allies that the team played. Like with anything during World War II, many things were lost due to the bombing, and records being burned. Most research has stemmed from word of mouth accounts and because of the NKVD (a Law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union) most people were questioned many times which was a source of confusion for witnesses.

One of the biggest problems is that on two separate occasions (in 1985, and 1992), a star player named Makar Honchareko told two conflicting stories of the event. There’s both a Russian and an English version of the account.

What is known is  that the ‘Death match’ took place on August 9th, 1942 between FC Start and Flakelf which translates to Flak 11 – a German anti-aircraft machine gun unit. Nikolai Trusevich, Start’s goalkeeper and legend of the time was knocked unconscious due to the physical play of the German representatives. Water was poured on the keeper to make him come around and was able to continue although dazed.

With the game looking destined for a draw, striker Honcharenko scored the final two goals of the game to seal a 5-3 victory for FC Start.

FC Start versus Flakelf.
FC Start versus Flakelf.

According to legend, the Germans warned the local team beforehand or at half-time that it would be better to lose the match or face the consequences. The Ukrainians ignored the threat and prevailed and as a result, the team was disbanded and was the end of the team.

Many of the key members of the team were rounded up and sent off to jail or forced labour camps and eventually killed. While it isn’t know how or why the players were killed, we can conclude that some were killed in those institutions. Reports suggest that some of the players were killed for trying to escape, aiding an escape, simply abusing a the camp wardens or even as a direct result of their links to FC Start.

The match was used as propaganda tool by the Soviet Union as a way to drum up defiance and pride among the citizens – the footballers had stood up proudly against their aggressors and two monuments were put up in Kiev to honour the fallen.

One of the monuments erected in Kiev to remember the footballers.
One of the monuments erected in Kiev to remember the footballers.

Under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev who presided over the USSR from 1964, the players were posthumously awarded medals for their bravery. The Supreme Soviet of the USSR – the highest legislative body in the country awarded four Dynamo players killed by the Germans ‘The Medal for Courage’. Five surviving players were also awarded ‘The Medal for Battle Merit’. The recipients of the latter were Volodymyr Balakin, Makar Honcharenko, Mikhailo Melnik, Vassyl Sukharev and Mikhailo Sviridovsky.

Like with many things that happened during World War II and the Cold War, a lot isn’t known and sources have either disappeared or becoming scarce as time goes on. We may never know the real story of what happened, though we can continue discuss the story so we can remember it into the future.

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