Every time there is some kind of tragedy within football, be it an individual’s death or a wider disaster, one phrase that pundits love to use is “it puts football into perspective”. It’s a horrible phrase and I hate it as it expects us to suddenly navel gaze and be ashamed that we take enjoyment from something that happens to currently have a shadow cast over it. But what if football is the perspective, what if football is
the reason for a group or individuals to unite against a darker force and somehow be the one thing which guides them through dark times. In Kiev in 1942, members of the Dynamo Kiev team pulled together to give
the citizens of the war torn city a beacon of resistance against their Nazi occupiers.
Football within the Soviet Union was quickly emerging in the 1930’s and Dynamo were the dominant Ukrainian team. They had acquired an extraordinary group of young and talented players from smaller teams
within Kiev and moulded them together to form a very successful nucleus. As so often with teams the goalkeeper was a dominant influence over the team and Nikolai Trusevich was no exception. Supremely talented and was a commanding presence over his players, he was the focus of everything within the team, think Jose-Marie Chilavert or Peter Schmeical.
Upon the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942 under Operation Barbarossa, many of the Kiev team joined the military. However as the Nazi war machine swept all before in its path, most of the team were captured as POW’s. They were released however in time by the Germans back into Kiev society and many of them gained work. Trusevich was given a job in a city bakery by a Dynamo fan and factory
manager Iosif Kordik. Kordik wanting to give his workers some relief from the tedium of the long shifts at the bakery decided to form a football team and Trusevich began to recruit his former team mates and Kordik
used his influence to give them all jobs at the bakery. Start FC was then formed with a majority of Dynamo players but also a few from their rivals Lokomotiv.
Start began playing in a local league despite some misgivings from some players that they were in some way collaborating with the Nazis, pacifying locals by playing in a league designed to give them distraction. One
notable shot of defiance was their wearing of red shirts. During 1942 Start played against several garrison teams from the occupying forces. The Germans however had begun to notice that these victories were giving the population a figurehead of resistance against them and wanted to do something about it.
A game was organised against the German Luftwaffe team Flakelf. It was obvious that the Germans had tolerated this team of upstarts long enough and wanted to put an end to it. The referee was a serving SS officer and he informed Start that they were expected to give a pre match Nazi salute and politely warned them of the consequences if they failed to do so. Some players in the dressing room wanted to give the salute as a means of non-provocation, some suggested that they lose on purpose as they’d had a good run but it was all getting a bit serious now. There were of course those who wanted to show defiance to the Germans and give a sign to those Ukrainians who had come to watch the match. The game was a sell out and many were forcefully kept outside, unable to get in.
Upon walking onto the pitch, both teams lined up and Flakelf gave the Seig Heil and all eyes were then on Start. What would they do, defiance or acceptance? The players began to raise their arms upwards, but when almost at the apex, brought them down to their chests abruptly with a cry of “FizcultHura!” This translates roughly as “physical culture”, meaning the physical and mental improvement for ones own sake rather than the pride of sport. It was a traditional Soviet pre-sporting cry and was a showing that the events about to take place were greater than the final result.
Once the game started, it was obvious that the SS referee was going to do his vest to help Flakelf. He ignored their brutality on the Start players and gave a foul for the most minor of infringements. Trusevich himself took a heft blow but recovered. Start, did however take the lead and by half time were 3-1 up. Once again at half time the players were asked to throw the match. In the second half both teams scored twice more and with the score at 5-3 Alexei Klimenko dribbled round most of the Flakelf team, rounded the keeper kicking the ball towards the line, only to stop it on the line, turn round and kick the ball back into play. This was more than the Germans could take and the referee blew before the 90 minutes
Within a few weeks it was clear what the fates of the Start players would be. Most were rounded up and sent to the Siretz labour camp in the Ukraine. The conditions were harsh and the cruelty more so. One day
the prisoners were lined up and every third man was to be executed. Trusevich was one of those who was to be shot. A rifle butt knocked him to the ground, only for his goalkeeping instincts to kick in and he jumped straight back up. As he did so he shouted “krasny sport ne umriot”, literally “red sport will never die” and was shot in the back of the head, wearing his familiar black goalkeeping jersey. Makar Goncharenko, another Start player only survived as he was away on a work detail and lived through the war. Other Start players were executed that day too, but this was a general punishment against the camp population, rather than something targeted at Start players.
The legend of the match and the team was allowed to grow by the Soviet propaganda machine after the war. Several books and films were made by the Kremlin glorifying the actions of the players in the face of fascist
Today the legend of the players lives on in Dynamo Kiev itself. There is a statue of Nikolai Korotkykh, Nikolai Trusevich, Ivan Kuzmenko and Alex Klimenko outside the ground, four of the players executed that cold, icy morning. The statue shows the four men, strong physically and proud in their football shirts, linking arms in a gesture of comradeship.
Sergei Baltacha, a member of the 1986 Cup-Winners Cup Dynamo team said that all modern Dynamo players were brought up with the legend of start and their self sacrifice, “they are the best example of what it is about to sacrifice yourself and put everything into the team”.
So the next time some pious presenter or pundit tells us that football is only a game and that it is put into perspective, remember the Start players and that Bill Shankly was right after all, “it’s much more important than that”.