Sports has always found quite a telling way of reflecting the societal realm within which it operates – be it by way of politics, economics, art or culture.
An instance of this unique interaction between sports and society stands relevant even to this day.
In a politically charged scenario, such as today, where white supremacy and racial discrimination are rising to the surface, one cannot help but relate to the role sports has played in quelling and adding a voice to the surge against a rising wave of nationalism.
The movement against white supremacy and nationalism in the United States has found a renewed voice through sports, with NFL football players voicing their disagreement by kneeling down while the national anthem was played before games.
Undeniably, such acts of nationalistic “defiance”, underlie the idea that sports, intrinsically, has much more far reaching consequences off the pitch than on it.
In light of current events, let us rewind the pages of history and witness how football united a country in their own fight against fascism.
On 19 September, 1941, Nazi Germany began their invasion of Soviet Russia, and moved eastwards towards Kiev, the current capital of Ukraine. The invasion of Kiev lasted 72 days, wreaking havoc on the citizens of the city.
Approximately 8-10 million civilians lost their lives. A significant chunk of the population was subjected to starvation diets, which included eating tree barks and cow dung.
The bones of the civilians who succumbed to their death were used for conversion to fertilizers. This was done by a specifically designed Nazi grinding machine, which converted the bones of the deceased to fertilizers. People were executed, in many instances, specifically for this purpose.
Those civilians who protested against the Nazi atrocities, were sent to concentration camps in Germany and other Nazi-occupied areas, where they were either executed or subjected to forced labour.
In light of these incidents, to make everyday life appear as normal as possible, Lieutenant General, Freidrich George Eberhardt proposed the idea of a football match between various regiments of the German rail force, air force and the factory workers of Kiev.
In the days prior to the invasion of Nazi Germany, football was already an important aspect of the social strata of Soviet Russia. The Soviet Top League was established in 1936, with clubs from Kiev and Moscow forming a bulk of the teams in the league. Kiev had its own successful clubs, rooted in its deep communist ideologies – Dynamo Kyiv and Lokomotiv Kyiv.
After the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia, many footballers from these clubs were forced to leave their footballing profession and found other low paying jobs to sustain their everyday living.
One of these players was Nicolai Trusevich, the ex-goalkeeper of Dynamo Kyiv, who was then selling lighters at the local markets in Kiev. It was then that he met Joseph Kordik, the director of a certain bread factory in Kiev, named as Bread Factory number 1.
Over the course of the next few weeks many ex-footballers across Kiev and Moscow joined the ranks of the bread factory.
When the news of Eberhardt organizing a football match reached their ears, all the ex-footballers in the bread factory wanted to play the match against the Nazis.
While local civilians were against the idea of playing a game of football against their oppressors, the players themselves saw it as a means of giving their city something to cheer about – a chance to beat the Nazis.
Thus, the players working at the bread factory, all previously plying their trade across various footballing clubs in Kiev, came together to form a team, FC Start. FC Start were to play several matches against the German, Hungarian and Romanian regiments. They would also play games against the German Rail force, and the mighty German Airforce, the Luftwaffe.
The FC Start team wore red jerseys, deliberately as a sign of protest against the Nazis, signifying the communist ideologies they held dear to their heart, which the Nazis so glaringly despised.
The first match was played against the Hungarian Regiment, with FC Start winning 6-2. The second was a rout by the home club, against the Romanian Regiment at the Kiev Zenit Football Stadium, winning by 11 goals to zero. FC Start would go on to win their first three matches consecutively, beating the team of German artillery soldiers by six goals to no reply.
With their pride shaken, Nazi Germany seemed like a wounded lion. It was hurting from the fact that someone so “inferior” to them, could defeat them, the mighty Aryans. Fuelled by a sense of vengeance, Nazi Germany threw in their last, and their strongest roll of dice to play FC Start – The Luftwaffe.
The Luftwaffe, was the strongest of all the other military units, and their football team was personally supervised by their Commander-in-Chief, Hermann Goering. They were called FC Flakelf. Mesmerised by his football team, Goering even went to the extent of forbading his players to go into the battlefield, as he considered them to be one of the best football teams in the country.
Posters of the football match were set up, and stuck on walls and streets all across Kiev. This was a match between the oppressors and the oppressed.
On 6 August, 1942, FC Start faced FC Flakelf. It was said before the game that Ivan Kuzmenko, a former Dynamo Kiev player, practiced with a ball three times heavier than the usual ball. Such was the tenacity of the FC Start players, and it came as no surprise therefore, that they completed another rout against the Luftwaffe, winning five goals to one.
Nazi Germany were so bitter about the result that they demanded another rematch. Their pride had been hurt again – though this time with a far greater venom, and they became desperate to avenge their humiliating defeat to the lowly Russians.
FC Start agreed for the rematch, with the game to be held three days later. Despite ticket prices soaring to 5 Rubles, 2000 spectators made their way to the Kiev Zenit Stadium.
It is reported that prior to the match, a Nazi Officer, who was also the referee for the game, visited the Kiev Locker room and demanded, “When the team goes out into the field, it should salute the opposing team with the traditional Heil Hitler”. He finished his threat with one last remark – “Do not win the match”.
The Luftwaffe were playing the game extremely rough, with the referee ignoring all shouts for foul play. They injured the goalkeeper of FC Start, Mikola Korotkykh, to the extent that he became unconscious on the playing field and was forced to come off at the break.
“They were hitting us so hard that we could hear our bones cracking”, Makar Goncharenko, an FC Start player recalled.
Despite that, in the first half, Start took the lead 3-1, courtesy of a Kuzmenko free kick and a Goncharenko brace.
In the second half, with the goalkeeper retired hurt, Germany scored twice to level the scores. However, it was FC Start who would have the last laugh, as they scored two more goals to win five – three. This was a historic victory for Start, with the streets of Kiev full of cheer and jubilations. Finally, Kiev did have something to cheer about.
The celebrations were however, short lived, as the aftermath of the victory came back to haunt the players of FC Start. On 18 August, the whole FC Start team was arrested on grounds of connections with the NKVD – the Russian Secret Service. The interrogation of the players lasted for 32 days, with players tortured, harassed and were either sent to the concentration camps or executed.
Five players, Olexander Tkachenko, goalkeeper Nikola Korotkykh, Nicolai Trusevich, Olexi Klimenko and Ivan Kuzmenko were shot dead. Trusevich and Kuzmenko were shot dead in the Syrets Concentration camp, while the rest simply disappeared. Goncharenko and Captain, Sviridovsky escaped from the Concentration camp, and managed to survive.
In 2005, a Hamburg court decided the case of the murderings and disappearances. The senior prosecutor, Jochen Kuhlman said “ The players’ death do not have any connection with the result of the match”. The Court finally dismissed the case on grounds of lack of evidence.
The players who survived have managed to recount the events which unfolded before their eyes. In 1971, figures of four footballers from FC Start were erected outside the Valerly Lobanovski Dynamo Stadium – a fitting tribute to the survivors and heroes of FC Start.
In 1975, years after the Nazi invasion, a newly formed team of Dynamo Kiev, managed by Lobanovsky, a former Dynamo Kiev player, led his team to the European Super Cup, beating the champions of Germany – FC Bayern Munich. Perhaps, divine justice had been served after all.