A monument in front of the “Start Stadium” in Kiev (Ukraine), honouring the Start players.
A monument in front of the “Start Stadium” in Kiev (Ukraine), honouring the Start players.

Saga of a Death Match

Did they play against certain death? Or was it made up?

Today in 1942, in the Nazi occupied Kiev (Ukraine), occurred one of the most infamous and disputed football matches in history.

A Ukrainian team, FC Start, consisting mostly of the bakery workers, former footballers, played a match against a German military team, Flakelf.

In the first match, held 3 days earlier, Ukrainians easily defeated the Germans by 5-1. But, the Germans immediately declared that they want a rematch “to dispel any confusion”.

Legend of revenge

In the revenge match, Gestapo told the Ukrainians that it would be better for them to lose. At least, the post-war legend claims that. Still, despite the warnings, FC Start players won again, 5-3. Over a week later, eight Start players were arrested and sent to concentration camps. About six months later, three of them were executed together with other prisoners in the camp and at least one another was eliminated by the Gestapo in a separate incident. Were the footballers’ victims of their defiance to the Nazis and the desire to win at any cost?

Publishing the myth

Soon after the war, the myth of the events started to emerge. And after the initial hesitation, the Soviet authorities figured out that they could exploit it. In the media and publications the match was increasingly turned into “the Death match”.

During the following years, the players were honored as Ukrainian heroes who opposed the German occupation and gave their lives for the Soviet ideals. Surviving players were given medals and a monument was erected in front of the Start stadium.


However, research conducted since the fall of the Soviet Union tells a slightly different version of the story. Free from the ideological burden and based on original documents, they argue that there was no Gestapo threat to the Start players to intentionally lose the match and the imprisonment and consequently the death of the four players rather should be sought in other causes.

Regardless to what extent it is true or presents a carefully constructed myth to serve the political and ideological purposes of the time, “the Death Match“ still remains as an important part of the memory and gives us an opportunity to explore the different levels and means of mythmaking.

Thinking points

Educators could take up the example of the myth and how it was used after the war, and raise questions with the students like:

  • What could have been the motivations of German teams playing local teams during the occupation?
  • What do you think could have been the reason for Soviet authorities to later recreate the myth of The Death Match?

Today in 1942, one of the most infamous matches in football history took place, in Nazi occupied Kiev.

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