Were a Group of Ukrainian Prisoners Killed After Defeating Their Nazi Captors in a Game of Soccer?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about soccer/football and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the soccer/football urban legends featured so far.

SOCCER/FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: A group of Ukrainian athletes/prisoners of war were executed after they defeated their Nazi jailers in a game of football/soccer.

It is now nearly eighty years since the start of the Second World War, but stories of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the war still resonate to this day. In the case of Kiev (in their language, Kyiv), the capital of Ukraine, the population was decimated during the war from 400,000 people to less than 100,000. While it might not have been specifically stated at any point, it appears evident that the Nazis’ plan was to cull the population of Ukraine to make room for eventual German colonization.

In such a terrible environment, the citizens tended to take their victories wherever they could, and in the case of the people of Kiev, their method of fighting back came in the form of football/soccer. However, like any other victory during war, their actions came with great risks. Today we shall take a look at the bravery of Start, City of Kiev All-Stars, and the awful price they paid for their bravery.

Soccer/football first started to catch on in Ukraine in the late 1920s. FC Dynamo Kyiv was formed in 1927, as part of the Dinamo Soviet sport society. Quickly, though, they became officially sponsored and funded by the NKVD (the Soviet military police, the KGB was an offshoot/evolution of the NKVD). Dynamo was the only team deemed worthy of hanging with the football clubs from Moscow. In fact, their success was a great aid in the creation of the Soviet Championship in 1936 (by the time the Championship began, though, Dynamo had slipped a bit and did not win a title and by the end of the decade were not a real contender for the title).

Nine matches into the 1941 season, on June 22, 1941, World War II began in the Soviet Union. Many members of Dynamo enlisted in the Soviet Army and the remaining members worked in civil defense back home in Kiev. It was to no avail, as the German forces quickly captured Kiev, along with 600,000 Ukrainian soldiers. After some time, a great many soldiers were allowed to return to Kiev to live and work in the now Nazi-ruled city (a great many were also killed or were not allowed to leave prison).

In Spring of 1942, Dynamo goalkeeper Mykola Trusevych was finally released from prison. He was given a job at Kiev’s Bakery Number 3. The Nazi-installed manager of the bakery, Iosif Kordik, was a big Dynamo fan and he tried his best to get Dynamo players work at the bakery. After awhile, Kordik came up with the idea of forming a bakery football team. Trusevych began scouring the city looking for players and eventually put together a roster of mostly former Dynamo players, but also a few players from a rival team, Lokomotiv Kyiv. The players were Mykola Trusevych, Mikhail Svyridovskiy, Mykola Korotkykh, Oleksiy Klimenko, Fedir Tyutchev, Mikhail Putistin, Ivan Kuzmenko, Makar Goncharenko from Dynamo and Vladimir Balakin, Vasil Sukharev and Mikhail Melnyk from Lokomotiv Kiev. They would play in the local league, run by Georgi Shvetsov, whose team was called Rukh.

The players were initially a bit wary about playing soccer in Occupied Kiev, as it almost felt like they were being Nazi sympathizers, but ultimately they decided that playing would be more helpful than it would be detrimental to Kiev, so they agreed to join the league (they also made a point to wear red uniforms).

The team was called FC Start, and they soon began known as the City of Kiev All-Stars, as they destroyed their opponents. Soon they would be pitted against teams made up of soldiers from various garrisons – they defeated them all.

On August 6, 1942, they faced off against an All-Star team from the German Luftwaffe. Start beat the team, who went by the name Flakelf, 5-1.

Flakelf asked for a rematch, which Start complied with, and on August 9, the two teams played again. Here is where myth comes into play. The myth states that Start was executed by a firing squad in the summer of 1942 for defeating an All-Star team from the German armed forces by 5 goals to 1.

In actuality, Start defeated Flakelf 5-3, despite the efforts by the Nazi referee to make the game lean towards Flakelf as much as they could. In addition, despite orders to do so, Start refused to give the Nazi salute to start the game. At half-time, up 3-1, the players were given one vague warning that winning might not be a good idea and one more explicit request from Georgi Shvetsov, the head of the league, to throw the match. They did not and held on to the 5-3 victory.

However, the team was not executed after the game. In fact, they played another match a week later, destroying Shvetsov’s Rukh 8-0. The next day, almost all of the members of the team were arrested (under the pretense of them being suspected of working for the NKVD), tortured and thrown into the nearby labour camp at Siretz.. One member of the team, Nikolai Korotkykh, died from the torture (a few members who were absent the day the police came were either arrested the next day or escaped and hid for the rest of the war – sources are conflicted on that). The conditions in these labor camps were not much better than torture itself. Workers were treated as slaves and were practically worked to death.

In February of 1943, in retaliation for acts of Ukrainian dissidence, the Nazis killed one third of the population of Siretz. Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksey Klymenko, and the team founder, goalkeeper Nikolai Trusevich, were among those executed.

Word eventually got out about the heroism of FC Start, and the surviving members of the team became heroes in post-war Ukraine. This horrific, yet heroically moving story, has been adapted into film a number of times after the war, including once in an English film, Escape to Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone (if you thought the myth changed the real story a lot, wait until you see how much the Stallone film changed the story).

The legend is…

STATUS: False Enough for a False

Thanks to Andy Dougan brilliant book, Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev for the information!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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