During the darkest days of Nazi occupation of Ukraine, the footballers of Dynamo Kiev gathered all of their courage to achieve their greatest victory. A triumph they paid for with their lives.

Fighting the Nazi war machine

In September 1941, the German army entered Kiev. While battle troops marched further east, an occupation force stayed behind, clearing the city of Jews and communists. Alarming news for Dynamo’s football players who, playing for a state sponsored club, were automatically registered as member of the Communist Party. And, for their part, the Nazi’s left little doubt about what they would do with communists who would fall in their hands.

Communist at heart was Dynamo’s goalkeeper Nikolai Trusevich. Once celebrated for his extraordinary style of defending the goal, Trusevich now was broke and malnourished. The Nazi invasion of his city had caused him to lose everything. At the end of 1941, however, his luck changed. By accident, he walked into well to do quisling Jozif Kodik. Besides collaborating with Germans, Kodik happened to be a great Dynamo fan. Unable to see his former goalkeeping hero in dire straits, Kodik  immediately decided to help, getting Trusevich a job in a local bakery. Within months other former teammates joined the bakery’s workforce. As a matter of fact, by now there were enough Dynamo players to form a football team again.

United at the bakery

Kodik pulled strings to get these players registered in the national football league under German supervision. For the Nazi authorities a football league in occupied Ukraine seemed to be an original idea to boost popular morale in the country. After all, a brisked up peasant spirit would produce more grain for the Reich. Little did the Nazi’s know, however, that soccer football would turn against them. Especially after the former Dynamo players, entering the pitch as FC Start, by June 1942 would be allowed to enter the competition. Playing against Hungarian, German and Nazi-Ukrainian army teams, Start would show no mercy for its opponents. By the end of the month, Start was top of the league, having scored 37 goals against only 8 conceded.

Club topscorer Ivan Kuzmenko showed his brilliance by scoring 15 goals. The light footed striker, already awarded as best player of the Soviet Union in 1938, grew into his old form with each game. Behind them featured Georgy Dmitriyevich, another former Dynamo star. His torso, together with his pace and stunning endurance, earned him the nickname ‘locomotive.’ Against these football giants resistance was doomed from the start.

Rare photo of FK Start before the match against Flakelf. Trusevich and Kuzmenko are in the second row, fifth and sixth from the left.

FC Start crushes its opponents

By the time the Nazi’s realised that Start was getting too popular it was already too late. Pulling the plug out of the competition would only draw all the wrong attention. It had to be on the pitch that German superiority must be shown, for all to see. Set up to do the job, was the football team of Flakelf,  manned by players from German anti-aircraft units around Kiev. August 6, 1942 at the Zenit stadium were the time and place set for the final showdown.

This day, however, FC Start would not have it. In a clamorous performance the Soviet side would sent Flakelf to a crushing 5-1 defeat. Immediately after the game, German authorities demanded a rematch, only three days later. This time, nothing would be left to change, nor sportiness.

Ahead of the game, Start players were put to street building. Hard physical labour, along with minimal rationing, had to wear them down.

And yet, on August 9, 1942, as the stadium filled with over two thousand spectators, FC Start showed up for a fight. In a grim atmosphere spectators were beaten by Ukrainian and German guards. Emotions also heated up on the pitch. German players kicked and hit their Soviet counterparts, who could expect no help from the SS referee. Trusevich, of all people, received a kick to the head. He laid unconscious while the Germans took a 0-1 lead.  

In these difficult circumstances even for Start defeat seemed inevitable. Then again, who else than Kuzmenko would make the difference. With a slight knick of the head he headed a cross over the German goalkeeper: 1-1. This equalizer fired up the hearts of Starts players, who immediately unleashed their dashing combinations. Striker Makar Honcharenko scored twice to give Start a comfortable 3-1 lead before the break.  

Football for life or death

Fearing another humiliating defeat, the SS referee took drastic measures. He invaded the Start dressing room and, in fluent Russian, announced that all of them would be deported if they would win the match. As the threat of deportation (and almost certain death) echoed through the dressing room, the Start’s squad had only a few minutes to come to an unanimous decision. After brief counselling, the players made up their minds. They would finish off Flakelf, even if it was the last thing they would do.

In the second half, after conceding two goals, Start again climbed up to a 5-3 lead. By now striker Klimenko would humiliate the German side in a spectacular move. He passed through the defence, left also the keeper behind, and then slowly walked to the empty goal. However, instead of shooting the ball in the net, he himself walked into the goal and shot the ball back into the pitch. Promptly the referee ended the game. He had seen enough.

In the weeks following the Start’s heroic win eight of its players were arrested and deported to Sirets concentration camp. Among those executed were Trusevich and Kuzmenko. Both men were shot in a mass execution at Babi Yar on February 24, 1943. For them, football indeed proved to be more important than life and death.

Former Dynamo players commemorating their heroes at the Zenit stadium in Kiev
Start’s heroic game in Escape to Victory (1981). Starring Sylverster Stallone and Pelé