‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we look back at a team that rebelled against the system, played the sport they truly loved, lost their lives in the process yet went on to spur an entire city.
Football in the eastern half of Europe has never really managed to match what the western half of the continent achieved. Yet great sides such as the Aranycsapat of the 1950s, Steaua București of the late 1980s and the Dynamo Kyiv team under Valeriy Lobanovskyi have mesmerized the football fraternity with their brilliance and have left an indelible mark in the story of The Beautiful Game. While Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo is thought of to be the greatest ever side in Ukraine, another courageous and daring team has almost been forgotten in the annals of Eastern European football.
The story begins fairly early during the Second World War, in 1941, when the Germans moved into Ukraine under Adolf Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. At this time, Dynamo Kyiv were the biggest club in the country but football was brought to halt that year.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, the Germans weren’t their only trouble. Under Stalin, nationalism was greatly curbed and his had forced the Red Army to lose huge numbers by constantly fighting against the Ukrainians. With the Germans marching closer to Ukraine and the Red Army already having lost numbers, footballers, including those from Dynamo Kyiv, were enlisted in the army. While some left Kyiv to fight the war, the others remained in the city as a second force but it all proved futile when the German tanks rolled into Ukraine. Operation Barbarossa was a success. Life for the citizens of Kyiv had gone from bad to worse.
People were shipped off to concentration camps in and around Ukraine, and among them were the players of Dynamo Kyiv. Luckily, a few members of the Dynamo side were not killed at the camps, returned to Kyiv and went on to form FC Start, a club set up by a bakery owner.
The owner of the bakery Otto Schmidt, a man of German origin, stumbled upon Start’s goalkeeper-to-be, Kolya Trusevych, when the big custodian came looking for a job. Scmidt, being a Dynamo fan, offered Trusevych a job as a janitor and thus began the culmination of one of football’s most talented yet tragic sides. Trusevych managed to round up all the surviving Dynamo players plus three Lokomotiv Kyiv players to finally form FC Start.
Under Nazi occupation, the league was restarted the following year and an unwilling Start side was registered. A section of the players were somewhat disgruntled to be playing in a Nazi run league but were eventually convinced by the notion that the sport in itself might help bring the troubled city together and prove to be the silver lining they needed.
In a league of Hungarian, Romanian and German soldiers, and other Ukrainian football clubs, Start strolled through the league, remaining unbeaten throughout. In a league that had been established by the Germans to showcase their superiority, a side of bruised and battered Ukrainians had gone on to spoil the show. In a time of great turmoil, FC Start had brought a glimmer of hope into the city of Kyiv.
With their plan being foiled, the Nazis decided to challenge Start to one more game by fielding a fresh side they called “Flakelf”. The Germans were of the view that their new squad would easily push aside this fatigued Start team and that they would be able to remind Ukraine and the city of Kyiv of their undying dominance.
But to the shock of the Third Reich, the group of bakers from Kyiv obliterated the Flakelf by a score of five goals to one. With the Ukrainian capital going through hell, a little club built in a bakery had managed the unthinkable and given the entire nation new found hope and vigour.
On the other hand, the rattled Nazis were out for revenge and put up fliers across the city of a rematch to be held just three days later. Rations were cut and the workload of the FC Start players was increased. The Germans were not out to just defeat the little Ukrainian side but to demean their efforts, demolish all hope created by them and reiterate their stranglehold over Kyiv and Ukraine. This was now far more than just football. This was war.
August 9th, the dreaded day of what was to be called the Death Match, had finally come. In their dingy little locker room the players of Start, clad in their red jerseys, a sign of their unwavering support for the Soviet Union, were getting ready for the game that was to push them towards their graves yet inspire the entire nation. Still in the locker room, the players were confronted by what some sources claim to be an SS officer. Threatened by the Nazi official that they would suffer dire consequences, this FC Start squad went on to the field to be greeted with the “Heil Hitler” salute of the Flakelf and were in fact expected to replicate the Germans’ actions but unsurprisingly chose not to.
Their lives may have been at stake but the Ukrainian side was a symbol of the entire nation. Their actions on the pitch would help bring together the entire country, prepare the country for the battle against Germany, shed some hope on the darkness that had engulfed Kyiv. Being the fuel that ran Kyiv, Start began brightly but dastardly refereeing coupled with a head injury to Trusevych saw the Flakelf go a goal ahead in the early minutes.
Start were not going to be bogged down by the goal nor the referee’s ignorance towards the Germans’ physical onslaught and equalized through Ivan Kuzmenko. The sheer brilliance of this side was then brought to the fore when Makar Honcharenko dribbled past a host of German players and slotted home to give the home side the lead. They eventually went into the break with a 3-1 lead and as expected were taunted at half time.
Paid another visit by an SS officer at half time, the Start players were informed yet again of the consequences of winning this match. Their lives or this victory? The choice might seem obvious today but this was a group of men who represented so much more than just a football team. They were the city of Kyiv, a symbol of resistance against the Nazis.
Returning onto the field both sides managed two goals apiece in the second half but it was one moment of sheer magic from one of Start’s defenders that was the highlight of the forty-five. Dribbling all on his own from his own half, Oleksiy Klymenko pranced and danced his way through the entire Flakelf and past their keeper, only to turn back around after reaching the German goal line. This was much more than just a sporting defeat to the Germans, it was a shot to the center of the heart of the Third Reich. The game ended 5-3 in favour of FC Start and Ukraine was rejoicing. But this was the beginning of the end of the eleven men who represented Start.
The bakery based side went on to play one final game, a week after the Death Match, an 8-0 victory over the other Ukrainian side in the league. Following this, the players of FC Start were shipped off one by one and interrogated by the Gestapo. The main idea behind their capture and questioning was that they would cave into Nazi pressure and admit that they were members of the NKVD, the public and secret police of the Soviet Union.
Some of these players attempted to escape from the clutches of the Gestapo and were shot dead, while the others were sent away to the Syrets concentration camp in Babi Yar. It was here that more of the FC Start legends were killed, including the trio of Kuzmenko (the scorer of the opening goal in the Death Match), Klymenko ( the defender whose dribble and goal mouth stunt added insult to the Germans’ sore wounds) and Trusevych (the man who some consider to be the founder of FC Start). Most sources claim that the camp commandant had one in three prisoners executed and that Trusevych fell to his death still clad in his FC Start goalkeeping jersey, the only shirt he owned.
Among the select few who were lucky enough to escape the brutality of the Nazis was the trio of Fedir Trutchyev, Mykhailo Sviridovskyi and Makar Honcharenko. Although their survival might be seen as a great moment by many, life under Stalin’s totalitarian regime was no less hellish than that under the Third Reich. Even the story of FC Start remained a mystery to most until well after Stalin’s death.
After hearing this remarkable story of a group of battered footballers going against the whims and wishes of the “superior race”, it would seem shocking to most to hear that people belittled their efforts, but it did happen. A soldier of the Red Army, Piotr Dinisenka, was highly dismissive of the efforts of FC Start –
“While many thousands of my comrades are hungry and cold, and sitting wet in dirty trenches under Fascist bullets, somewhere my fellow countrymen, in a place far from the front, young and healthy lads, are playing football. They are playing with those who occupied our land and who have tried to eliminate and kill me and against whom I am fighting in inhuman conditions. I am sorry but how do you think I should feel about this, you do not expect me to applaud it?“
Were Dinisenka’s comments justified? To a certain extent, yes. Life as a soldier is undoubtedly a lot harder than that of a footballer but any form of expression, even through sport, was greatly curtailed during both the Nazi and Stalin regimes. The entire story of FC Start is a clear example of a group of individuals rebelling against the system. Not only did this football club put a massive dent in the German plans but it also was a shout out against the iron grip of Stalin. Rebellion was blowing in the wind and FC Start were the first line to go up against all that had belittled Ukraine.
Many may never have heard of this story while some may have forgotten it but the city of Kyiv shall forever remember this incredibly brave group of eleven men who stood for everything the city believed in, the men who held this city together through one year of the war, the men who defeated Germany, the men who expressed themselves through the sport they loved, the men who wanted to free Ukraine!
Jonathan Wilson most aptly describes this side in his book, “Behind The Curtain: Travels In Eastern European Football” –
“The myth may have been better known than the truth, but the effect was the same: Dynamo became a rallying point in the darkest days of occupation, and at least until fragmentation, retained a patriotic value as the team of all Ukraine.” FC Start catalysed the growth of Ukraine’s greatest ever football team.
Read more about Dynamo Kyiv here