I’ve just finished watching Escape to Victory, a 1981 film starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Brazillian football legend, Pele and I was surprised to find out that the movie was actually inspired by a true story. Furthermore, the true story was in fact even better. It happened in 1942 when Ukraine was invaded and occupied by Germany.
The Death Match
“The Death Match was a non-official association football match in 1942 between Soviet POWs — former professional footballers (mostly from Dynamo Kyiv) — and soldiers of the Nazi Germany Wehrmacht.
On 7 June 1942, FC Start played its first game in the local league and their first opponents were Rukh. FC Start won 7-2, despite being poorly fed and equipped. During 1942, FC Start played several matches with teams of soldiers of occupying garrisons, and won them all. The German administration grew aware that FC Start victories might inspire Ukrainian inhabitants and decrease the morale of Axis troops.
The German Luftwaffe team Flakelf asked for a re-match, which was planned on 9 August at Zenit stadium. An SS officer was appointed as referee, and FC Start were aware that he would be biased against them. Some anonymous sources warned FC Start of possible punishment if they did not lose the game to the Germans. Despite this, the team decided to play as always. They also refused to give a Nazi salute to their opponents before the match.
Just as the FC Start players expected, the Nazi referee ignored Flakelf fouls. The German team quickly targeted the goalkeeper Trusevych who, after a sustained campaign of physical challenges, was kicked in the head by a Flakelf forward and left groggy. While Trusevych was recovering, Flakelf went one goal up.
The referee continued to ignore FC Start appeals against their opponents’ violence. The Flakelf team went on with their war of intimidation using all the tactics of a dirty team, going for the man not the ball, shirt-holding, and tackling from behind, as well as going over the ball. Despite this FC Start scored with a long shot from a free kick by Kuzmenko. Then Goncharenko, against the run of play, dribbled the ball around almost the entire Flakelf defence and tapped it into in the German net to make the score 2-1. By half-time, FC Start were yet another goal up.
The second half was almost an anti-climax. Each side scored twice. Towards the end of the match, with FC Start in an almost unbeatable position at 5-3, Klimenko, a defender, got the ball, beat the entire German rearguard and walked around the German goalkeeper. Then, instead of letting it cross the goal line, he turned around and kicked the ball back towards the centre circle. The SS referee blew the final whistle before the ninety minutes were up. <—- pwnage!
A week later on 16 August, Start defeated Rukh again, this time 8-0. Soon after that, a number of the FC Start players were arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, allegedly for being NKVD members (as Dynamo was a police-funded club). One of the arrested players Mykola Korotkykh died under torture. The rest were sent to the Syrets labour camp, where Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksey Klimenko, and the goalkeeper Mykola Trusevich were later killed in February 1943. The few survivors included Fedir Tyutchev, Mikhail Sviridovskiy and Makar Goncharenko who are responsible for the popularisation of this story in Soviet popular culture.”
This is perhaps the coolest and most inspiring “war story” I’ve ever known.