Why the Death Match continues to haunt

The tale of four Ukrainian players killed by the Nazis after they beat a German team in 1942 is still provoking debate

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The Independent Football

It is a muscular memorial, a hefty slab of stone outside the Lobanovsky Stadium in Kiev, the former home of Dynamo, the city's premier side. On one side of it, a quartet of chiselled figures stare towards a distant horizon. The sculptures represent four footballers, Mykola Korotkykh, Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksy Klimenko and Mykola Trusevych, four victims of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during the Second World War.

The men were murdered by the Nazis, Korotkykh under interrogation, the other three in Syrets labour camp, some time after they had played in a team of Ukrainians that inflicted a humiliating defeat on a German side. Their desperate fate is the basis for the story of the Death Match, a tale that became a legend, one where fact and fiction have become almost inseparable and one that continues to stir controversy to this day.

That the four died at the hands of the Nazis is not in doubt – why they were killed is. Was it because they were the backbone of the team that beat the Germans on the field of play? Or was the football a coincidence and their end the consequence of a more straightforward act of sabotage? There is another suggestion too, that the Nazis believed the players were connected to the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, as the Dynamo club had links to the Soviet secret police.

It is a tale that has so far inspired four films – including Escape to Victory, which moved the story to Paris and brightened the ending – a number of books and a war crimes investigation by German authorities in the 1970s that found no evidence the players were killed because of a game of football.

The latest film, a Russian-made fictionalisation of the match and its aftermath, was released last month and immediately stirred controversy, not only for its over-dramatic slant but also for its depiction of the players as heroic Soviet (ie Russian) figures and much of the rest of the Kievites as little more than Nazi collaborators. After calls for the film to be banned in Ukraine – there were concerns it might inflame feelings between Russia and Ukraine, already a delicate relationship, ahead of a Euro 2012 influx of Russian fans – it was eventually given a release certificate.

Backed by Russian state funding made available for "patriotic" films, it stars Sergei Bezrukov, a popular Russian actor who lists Pushkin among previous historical roles. Bezrukov plays a character based on the goalkeeper Trusevych. In the pivotal scene, he sits in the dressing room and declares to his team-mates they must win. "But they'll kill us," says another player. "That's a minus, but we'll get over it," responds the hero-keeper with a devil-may-care glint in his eye.

The reality was somewhat starker. The Germans had swept into Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1941. The occupation was particularly cruel; in September over 30,000 Jews were massacred in two days at Babi Yar in Kiev. By the following year, many of the city's residents were close to starving. Come the summer, the occupying authorities decided to stage a series of football games in an attempt to demonstrate a sense of "normality" in the Ukrainian capital.

A Ukrainian side was assembled, albeit only after debate among those involved whether playing against the occupiers was collaboration. Called FC Start, it was based around a group of workers from a bakery in the city – there are claims the bakery's manager was a football lover who offered former players jobs to help them survive the occupation. The Dynamo men provided the core but the rest were former professionals as well, from Lokomotiv, and proved far too good for their opponents.

Start won a succession of games comfortably and then came the Death Match. The Germans, so the legend goes – and it is at this point that fact and fiction start to blur – had had enough. A second match against a team from the Luftwaffe, the air force, was arranged in the Zenit stadium for 9 August 1942. According to some accounts, it was made clear to the Ukrainians that only one result was permissible. Others say the referee, a German, visited the dressing room before the match merely to offer a "reminder" to play within the rules. By half-time, Start led 3-1 and during the interval there were further visitors to the dressing room; again accounts differ, some talk of an SS officer pointing out the consequences victory would bring, others make no mention of any such discussion.

What is in no doubt is that Start won 5-3. One description of the match has a Start player rounding the German keeper in the last minute but instead of scoring he kicked the ball back towards the halfway line. The humiliation was complete.

Except... there is a photograph, made public by one of the players' children after the war, of the Start players and German opponents intermingled and smiling at the camera post-match. There is no sign of any animosity. Yet even that cannot be taken at face value – some believe the photograph was taken after one of the earlier matches.

The first public suggestion of players being arrested and killed did not come until the following year, 1943. The Death Match moniker was not attached until after the war. In 1946, an article entitled the "Death Match" appeared in a Soviet newspaper.

The spinning of such heroic myths was a common tactic by the regime. The story of Pavlik Morozov, a young boy murdered in the 1930s, was weaved into a tale told to every Soviet schoolchild for generations – how he sacrificed his life by bravely denouncing his own family as enemies of the state. The Death Match received similar treatment in the post-war years.

In 1962, a film was made; two years later, a number of the players were posthumously decorated for bravery; in 1971, a monument was unveiled in Kiev. Their place in Soviet history was assured.

So what did happen after the match? Immediately afterwards; nothing. It was not until at least several days later that nine players were arrested at the bakery. Some contemporary reports say they were taken away along with a number of other workers for putting broken glass in the bread – it was made for the Germans. Other reports say the Germans had finally made the connection between Dynamo, the players and the NKVD. That seems certainly the reason for Korotkykh's arrest – a picture was discovered of him in NKVD uniform. He was taken to Gestapo headquarters in central Kiev – which had previously been the NKVD HQ and was to become so again – where he died after torture.

The other arrested players were sent to Syrets. On 24 February 1943, months after the Death Match, Trusevych, Klymenko and Kuzmenko were reported to have been shot. They were three among many, many thousands – the estimates rise beyond 100,000 – to meet such a fate in Syrets and Babi Yar over the two years of occupation before Kiev was liberated in late 1943.

The four men whose imagined likenesses today stare resolutely from their monument may not have died because of their sport, but they deserve to be remembered by their sport and to remain legends of the game – whatever the truth of their brutal end.