by midtowng | 8/20/2008 12:07:00 AM
Watching the beauty and grace of the athletes at the Olympic it is easy to forget that these games were developed to fight wars. The hammer throw, discus throw, javelin throw, boxing, fencing, and wrestling were all important in ancient warfare.

You may have wondered why the marathon is 42.195 kilometers (26 miles 385 yards). It's a strange and awkward number. According to one legend, it is the exact distance from the battlefield at Marathon, Greece, to the Senate building in Athens. A messenger named Pheidippides ran the entire distance without stopping, burst into the Senate and declared, "Nenikékamen ('We have won')" before collapsing and dying.

The Mayans took the seriousness of their games to another level. This game, played for thousands of years, was some combination of racquetball and volleyball. The winners became heroes. The losers sometimes became human sacrifices to the gods.

But its not ancient games I want to talk about. It's a much more modern one that interests me.

Not Just A Game

"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that."
- Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly

Football, or soccer as it is called in America, was an extremely popular, state-sponsored sport in the Soviet Union in the 1930's, especially in the Ukraine. The strongest football team in the Ukraine at the time was the Dynamo Kyiv (out of Kiev), which consistently ranked in the top-tier of competitive teams.

Early Dynamo team

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, several members of the team went off to fight. The Wehrmacht almost completely overwhelmed the Red Army, took Kiev, and many members of the Dynamo Kyiv wound up in POW camps.
That's when things got interesting.


Josif Kordik was sitting in a cafe' in the center of Kiev one day when he recognized a familiar face walking by.
Mykola Trusevych, was the old Dynamo's goalkeeper, and had just gotten out of the POW camp. He was living on the streets. Josif was a huge fan of the Dynamo's and decided to give Mykola a job sweeping at his bakery. The day he showed up for work Mykola found himself surrounded by old teammates. It seems that Mykola had already hired several other members of the Dynamo's, all of them struggling to feed themselves in war-torn Kiev. In early 1942 Trusevych began a search for former teammates and former members of the Lokomotiv Kiev, a former competitor.
Kolya came to me at Kreschatick Street where I was living illegally at my former mother-in-law's house. He came to me to have a chat about this idea and to find some of the other boys. We got in touch with Kuzmenko and Svyridovskiy and they contacted some of the others.
- Makar Honcharenko
Mykola was about to realize a long-time dream - being the owner of a quality football team. It was renamed the FC Start.

On June 7, 1942, the Start began playing against other local teams. They crushed their opponents despite the players being malnourished.
On June 21, they played their first match against soldiers from an occupying Hungarian garrison, and won 6-2. A few weeks later they beat a Romanian garrison 11-0.

They played four more matches that summer against occupying troops and crushed them each time. Eventually the Germans administration noticed and became concerned that the these victories might start giving the local Ukranians some hope. So they matched up their best Luftwaffe team, the Flakelf, against the Start on August 6.
The Flakelf got crushed 5-1.

The master race had just been humiliated by an inferior race. The German administration could not let this stand, so they arranged a rematch for three days later.
This time the Germans would leave nothing to chance.

The Death Match

"I am the referee of today's game. I know you are a very good team. Please follow the rules, do not break any of the rules, and before the game, greet your opponents in our fashion."
- SS officer and referee to FC Start members
With the excited crowd watching, the two teams exchanged greetings, Flakelf crying 'Heil Hitler' to shouts of German approval. However, as the FC Start players raised their hands aloft instead of giving the expected salute they brought their hands back to the chests and shouted the Soviet slogan, "FizcultHura!", or Physical Culture Hooray! To the Germans' dismay the Ukrainian spectators cheered their rejection of the Nazi slogan.

As soon as the whistle blew the Flakelf team tore into their opponents with tackles and physical challenges bearing scant regard for the ball, whilst the Nazi referee exhibited an almost Wenger-like ability not to see the incidents. With the FC Start goalkeeper seeing stars, Flakelf netted their first goal. Start rallied however. Riding the challenges they pushed forward. When the referee was finally forced to award a free kick to the baker boys, Kuzmenko scored a stunning set piece. Next Goncharenko, a talented winger, took on the entire Flakelf defense before tapping in a second. A third followed and the team retired at the interval 3-1 up, with the Ukrainians in the crowd rapt with jubilation.
"You really cannot expect to win, however. Just consider for a moment what will happen if you do."
- anonymous SS officer warning to the Dynamo Kyiv at halftime

When the players returned to the pitch for the second half the perimeter was lined with armed soldiers. The symbolism could not have been more clear, and perhaps that is why the Start players pushed on.

Both teams scored twice in the second half. With just a few minutes left in the game, defender Alexei Klimenko beat the entire German backfield, rounded the goalkeeper, and stopped the ball on the line. Klimenko then walked behind the ball and kicked it back towards midfield, spurring a chance to add another goal.
It was the final humiliation for the master race. They had lost 5-3.


This story doesn't have a happy ending.

Soviet propaganda legend says that the players were immediately marched to a nearby ravine and shot in their football uniforms. That isn't true - the Nazis waited a week before taking revenge.

On August 16, the Gestapo showed up at the bakery with a list of players names. The players were rounded up and taken to secret police headquarters and tortured in the hope of getting them to confess to being criminals or saboteurs. None of them cracked, however one of them, Nikolai Korotkykh, died under torture.
The remaining ten were sent to the Syrets labour camp.
Kuzmenko, scorer of the free kick, Trusevich, the charismatic goalkeeper and team captain and Klimenko, the defender who chose not to score, were all shot and bundled into the Babi Yar ravine.
Three other players, Goncharenko, Tyutchev and Sviridovsky, were doing forced labor in the city when they heard about the fate of their friends. Realizing their danger, they escaped their captors and hid in the city until the Red Army liberated it in November 1943.
All the other players were disappeared.