Heard the one about the prisoners of war who faced up to the Nazis on the football pitch during world war 2? Well the Ukrainian players of FC Start did such a thing and they never needed any help from Pele, Michael Caine or Sylvester Stallone!
Dynamo Kiev goalkeeper Nikolai Trusevich stood deathly still, scared to move for fear of the horrors that stood behind him–two German SS officers. Stood there inside the feared Siretz death camp as a prisoner of war during Hitler’s rampage throughout Russia & Ukraine he stood there wondering if he would live another day or if it was simply his time to be added to the list of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians executed by the German military. It was winter 1942, a grim existence for Trusevich & a scenario he couldn’t have envisaged only seven years earlier when he signed for Dynamo arriving eight years after the clubs own inception.
Dynamo, a team created for Kievan police officers, had taken only a matter of years from formation to becoming the top side in the city knocking Karkhov off that spot & securing their first league title by 1932. Trusevich joined an ever growing squad brimming with talent. Key players including Nikolai Mackinya & Konstantin “Kostya” Shchegotsky providing the firepower up front, Kostya being an early days David Beckham style celebrity player of his day. During the same period that Trusevich joined up, young defender Alexei Klimenko who was part of a trio of brothers in from a famous Kiev circus family also agreed terms to pull on the white Dynamo shirt.
In 1936 they were to play in what would be the inaugural Russian club championship giving them the chance to test themselves against the big clubs from Moscow who were famous across the whole country, they came a very respectable 2nd behind the mighty Dynamo Moscow. Without ever repeating as high a finish they consistently gave a good account of themselves until the 1941 season which was suspended after only four matches due to the news of Hitlers blitzkrieg heading in their direction.
On the 23rd of June one day after war had been declared, Trusevich along with Dynamo team mates Mackinya & Ivan Kuzmenko enlisted in the army to help defend their city. Kostya Shchegotsky being refused entry due to a medical condition. The inevitable could not be delayed & by September German forces had all but taken the city. Pre war Dynamo had began as a team sponsored by the states secret police the KNVD. Under Stalin’s rule it was considered a desirable position to play for Dynamo due to what & who they stood for. Under German rule however the players would not be looked on so favourably & through this the Dynamo player’s wives & children were evacuated from the city. The players were not so fortunate and under orders were to remain in Kiev. The players who were not already enlisted in the army were placed in a special citizens committee.
19th September and Kiev was finally under German control. Almost overnight huge open air prisoner of war camps sprung up and it was inside the Darnitsa camp that Nikolai Trusevich came across Nikolai Balakin, a rival on the pitch pre war as a Locomotiv Kiev player. Conditions inside Darnitsa were inhuman, the combination of little food & next to no sanitation saw the camp awash with disease. Scurvy, dysentery & gangrene wiping out scores of Ukrainians without one Nazi having to fire a single bullet. There were daily raids that would see prisoners grabbed indiscriminately and taken off to the notorious Siretz death camp where Ukrainians were taken to be executed. Trusevich & Balakin led a charmed life inside Darnitsa, Trusevich’s Dynamo team mate Yatchmennikov wasn’t to share the same luck dying inside the same camp.
With Germany now having implemented a social system in place with an upper & middle tier with a multi layered working class below that the Dynamo players detained at Darnitsa were offered a way out. By signing papers declaring that they would be loyal to the new regime they would be reintroduced to society once more. Trusevich, Kuzmenko, Klimenko and the others all signed on the dotted line knowing they never really had a choice.
After a chance meeting with local businessman Iosif Kordik, Trusevich would go on to work in Bakery #3 a bakery that was responsible purely for the baking of bread for German forces on a 24 hour loop. The job was menial & only given to him as a token gesture due to Kordik being such a big Dynamo Kiev fan pre war. Trusevich found that he wasn’t the only known sportsman working inside the bakery, more of sports mad Kordik’s doing. His manager soon suggested that with more positions at the bakery available Trusevich should try to locate the rest of the remaining Dynamo players still alive and in the city.
Through various contacts Trusevich had soon located the remaining players. Through the casualties inflicted by the Nazis his search then moved onto players of rival teams. It didn’t take much in the way of persuasion to get all players on board with the offer of a job, place to live & guaranteed food … And the hope of a game of football amongst the like minded.
While Iosif Kordik was busy assembling an all star team of bakers taken from Dynamo & Lokomotiv the first football match in occupied Kiev was being arranged. A German army unit was to play Rukh a newly formed nationalist team. This was to mark the opening of the newly developed Kiev sports stadium which had been so generously paid for (sic) by Germany & their propaganda machine. The event was a success and from this Georgi Shvetsov the Rukh player manager & influential nationalist was able to convince his German allies that starting a football league would help stabilize the city. Citing that it would give the locals something resembling normality and allow the German military to get on with their bigger plan for Russia.
When the news reached Kordik of the prospect of league football there was no question that his men would not be entering. It was not like he was short of players who knew their way around a football pitch. A name would have to be chosen, they elected to call this side, a mix of Dynamo legends, squad players & up and coming young players with a little help from their rivals from Locomotiv, FC Start
Paradoxically whilst the name had been chosen and the team entered into the league with their first game now upon them not all of the side were comfortable in playing. Mackinya for example who had strong patriotic leanings towards Stalin felt that playing in a competition run by Nazis was nothing more than collaborating with the enemy. Others in the squad felt the opposite reasoning that by playing they would play a part in helping the beleaguered Kiev public forget the war even if it was only for the occasional 90 minutes. As had been the case pre war and now in the present they looked towards their leader Trusevich. There inside the dressing room in a move that Jose Mourinho could’ve scripted he took their red football shirts, spread them on the floor in front of the players & began to speak.
‘We do not have any weapon but we will fight with our victories on the football pitch. For a while the players of Dynamo and Loko will be playing in one colour, the colour of our flag. The fascists should know that this colour cannot be defeated ‘
It was a speech that left the hairs on the back of the neck stand up and not only was there no chance that they wouldn’t take to the field, it was also completely out of the question that Trusevich’s men would allow themselves to be beaten out there. Rukh were duly dispensed of in embarrassing fashion by seven goals to two. Rukh’s Shcvetsov after the match visited the city commander demanding that the FC Start players be denied entry to the stadium from now on claiming that they being prisoners of war were not in the same class as him and his fellow nationalists and as such did not deserve use of the stadiums facilities. The request was granted.
With no choice whatsoever and no right of appeal Kordik pragmatically secured the use of the much smaller Zenit stadium elsewhere in the city and from their second match onwards that was where their matches would be played. In this small run down stadium week by week FC Start’s reputation grew & grew. Each side put up against them were effortlessly dealt with. Both the Hungarian & Romanian garrisons were beaten 6-2 & 11-0 respectively. With word spreading throughout the city with each victory there was the biggest crowd so far on 17th July when Start would take on PGS a German military unit. They barely broke sweat in a 6-0 win, embarrassing enough for the Germans without the added fact that the Start players had all done a bakery shift that same day!
This was the watershed moment that the German authorities started to see the problem that this side from the bakery that made their bread was starting to appear to become. The fear being that they had effectively crushed the Kievans spirits and this team potentially giving them a rallying point would not stand. From that point on the authorities would keep a much closer eye on FC Start.
The fifth and last game of the mini league saw them faced with their toughest opponents to date, MSG. Start won 5-1 but it was a win with a hollow ring to it due to MSG playing with 10 men for part of the game through injury. Even the Ukrainians were to admit that it had been a false scoreline. MSG lodged a request for the season to be extended by one week and that a rematch played. Impressed by their eagerness to once more go up against the Kiev bakers the authorities granted the request in the hope that Start would finally be beaten. They weren’t, MSG were beaten 3-2.
The momentum gathering, communists over the city were now showing their support for Start by the thousands. A symbol & entity that Kiev’s population could identify with, the German forces knew this would have to be dealt with but how? To simply execute them would’ve served no purpose other than to make these men footballing martyrs. The only way to put a lid on this would be to show the Ukrainians how superior their rulers were by doing it on the football pitch in a very public fashion.
It was announced that the league would be extended by one more week. The extension created purely for the purpose that would allow Fc Start to be pitted against Germany’s Air Force team, the infamous Luftwaffe who on the football pitch went by the name of Flaklef. For the first time since Starts inception a match they were playing was front page news in the German controlled local Kiev paper. All eyes of the city were on the match, communists, nationalists & Nazis. All aware by now that the performances of Start were standing for a lot more than just men playing football. Start took to the field on 6th August facing their stiffest test yet since the players left the Darnitsa POW camp against a team that looking objectively it may not have been a bad thing to lose against. Final score ….. Start 5 Flaklef 1
Without any warning, the day after the match the citizens of Kiev woke to find the streets awash with posters announcing that there would be a rematch between the teams the following day. This did not appear to be an invitation that Trusevich et al would be in a position to turn down.
On the day of the match sat in the dressing room the Start players were visited by an SS officer who advised them that he would be the match referee. Amongst a series of instructions that were issued from him was the expectation that Start were expected to greet their opponents in “their fashion “. The players left under no illusions what this meant, they would be required to show a Nazi salute out there on the pitch in front of their fans and own people.
With the teams lined up on the pitch before kick off the German pilots, in military fashion, flawlessly turned and clicking heels extended their right arms into the air roaring heil Hitler to the approval of the thousands of German soldiers amongst the crowd. The focus then switched to the players from Start. In a clearly pre planned move they too turned & clicked their heels and then appearing to reluctantly raise their right arm into the air only to stun everyone inside the stadium by bringing their arms back down and pumping their chest with a clenched fist screaming Fizcult Hura. This is not something that translates over into English too well, but standing for “Physical Culture ” it was a phrase carefully chosen back in the dressing room during some heavy soul searching done by the players after being visited by the SS officer.
The game itself saw no rules whatsoever enforced from the referee as far as Flaklef were concerned. During one first half attack Trusevich was intentionally kicked in the head almost days after coming out to collect the ball. He was left unconscious on the pitch to the panic of his team mates but came around minutes later insisting he wanted to play on. Fc Start went a goal down at a point when Trusevich was still suffering from double vision from the earlier incident. A 30 trader from Ivan Kuzmenko restored parity, hitting it from so far out after being repeatedly taken out any time the ball found him he reasoned that he should just hit it before being scythed down. Their tails up Start went 2-1 up with a devastating Goncharenko dribble through the Flaklef defence with tidy finish at the end of it. The same player then making it 3-1 with a stunning volley right on the stroke of half time.
During the half time break a second SS officer entered the Start dressing room. He complimented the players on their spirited performance in the first half before chillingly adding that ‘ they should understand that they could not possibly expect to win ‘ and that ‘ they should take a moment before going back onto the field to think of the consequences of that ‘
Start arrived back into the pitch not knowing where to stick or twist, they did both. Four more goals were scored in the match, two from each side in an anticlimactic second half. The second period however was remembered for other than the four goals and for a true act of rebellion from young defender Alexei Klimenko against his German oppressors. Dancing his way through the Flaklef defence then past the on rushing goalkeeper instead of knocking the ball into the empty net he took it up to the goal line and stopped. He looked back up the field & cheekily booted the ball back into play. The ultimate embarrassment, this prompted an early final whistle from the referee despite the match not yet being at the 90 minute mark.
The Start players knew that it would have been foolish not to expect reprisals from the German authorities but in the days following the match found themselves free to carry on with their day to day work at the bakery. They were even more surprised to learn that a match against Rukh had been arranged. Georgi Shvetsov still hurting from the opening day defeat had used his influence with the Germans to allow his side a chance to exact revenge on the side who had embarrassed his nationalist side on the first day of the season. Trusevich’s men ran out 8-0 victors in an even more embarrassing defeat than last time around.
Following this, the volatile Schvetsov pressed the Germans on why these players from Start were being allowed to walk freely in occupied Kiev. Pointing out that every single day they walked the streets was a propaganda victory for communist Russia. The orders were soon given for all Start players to be arrested. The next morning plain clothes Gestapo officers visited bakery # 3 and working their way through a list of players from the previous match against Flaklef called each player one by one to report to Iosif Kordik’s office. When each player walked through the door Kordik was nowhere to be seen. Instead they found German offices that would cross check their names against the list before having them bundled into waiting cars and taken away.
The players incessant interrogation for 20 straight days, the German aim being to secure a false confession of theft, sabotage, anything that would allow them the right to a legal execution. On the 20th day Nikolai Korotkykh died having been effectively interrogated & tortured to death. From that point on the probing of the players stopped immediately and soon they found themselves taken to the disease & death filled camp that went by the name of Siretz.
Siretz death camp, a deeply unpleasant waiting room, a place where if you got lucky and the Nazis didn’t kill you the lack of food & water and plethora of diseases would. Days after arriving the players were given a harsh introduction to the environment they were now part of. A group of prisoners taking a break from work were ordered to stop by a heavy handed SS officer, they overpowered him taking his pistol & shooting him. The players were given an insight into how such behavior was tolerated moments later when a senior officer arrived. He instantly had the remaining prisoners from the incident shot in front of him then ordered for 30 of the most weak & Ill prisoners in the camp to be brought out and told to kneel beside the 18 dead bodies already lying there on the ground and had each prisoner shot in the back of the head leaving 48 dead bodies there within a matter of minutes.
The team tried their hardest to stay together inside Siretz but most would go days & weeks at a time without seeing each other. By winter 1942 with his troops frozen in solid at Stalingrad and the Kievans finding a new sense of defiance through this Hitler issued orders to step up resistance to any open opposition to Nazi rule. Any acts discovered would then bring reprisals for the Kiev citizens both inside and outside the death camps throughout the city.
Following an act of Russian sabotage on a major scale that saw 100 transport sleighs destroyed in a factory fire orders were given for all POW’s inside Siretz to line up in the courtyard. Stood there the only sound audible to them was the noise of Nazi jackboots, then the noise of someone being knocked to the ground filled by two gunshots then the sound of boots again, repeat to fade. Discriminately picking out every third prisoner out for execution in an act of cold revenge for the sabotage of the sleigh factory.
Ivan Kuzmenko the Start forward was the first to be executed, only falling to the ground after four brutal knocks from an SS officers rifle before taking two bullets to the head, his team mates oblivious to this. Alexi Klimenko, the youngest member of the side and the player who had heaped the ultimate embarrassment to Flaklef in the second match, soon he was gone too.
This was repeated over and over again with every third prisoner shot and killed, the courtyard filling up with dead bodies. Trusevich stood there, unaware that some of his closest friends & team mates were already dead but most aware that the noise of the officer’s boots was getting closer and closer. They stopped behind him, he waited for a moment trying not to move, trying not to give them any excuse to kill him. The butt of the officers rifle smashed into the back of his head. Knocked to the ground he sprang right back up to his feet and knowing what was about to come, in his native tongue he roared out ‘ Red sport will never die ‘. His last word barely escaping his lips before he was shot in the head where he stood dying there in the red shirt he wore as Fc Starts goalkeeper and leader.
Russia regained control of Kiev on November 6th 1943 with no more Start players suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Once Russian authorities had launched a full investigation into all of what had happened to Kiev under the control of Germany the story of FC Start was finally brought to their attention. With all the bravery that had been shown in the face of such oppression and for how the players had fought for themselves, each other & for mother Russia the remaining players were bestowed with honours & turned into heroes by the state.
The four men who fell at the hands of the SS, Trusevich, Kuzmenko, Klimenko & Korotkykh are honoured to this day outside Dynamo Kiev’s sports centre in a monument to the men who defended Dynamo & the city of Kiev’s honour. Their contribution forever cemented in the local folklore attached to Hitlers invasion of their proud city. The story of FC Start to this day is told to kids growing up in Kiev despite events taking place over 70 years ago and remains a source of national pride. Kievans of all generations grow up knowing of the strength, courage and fearlessness showed by Trusevich and his men.
With the tale of FC Start due to receive the Hollywood treatment, shooting starting on ‘ Dynamo ‘ set to begin this year with Gerard Butler taking up the role of Trusevich the story of these courageous footballers turned bakers is soon going to be known and spoken about much further afield than the households & bars across Kiev. I only hope Hollywood honours these men and all that they went through in the right way and does them proud, Hollywood being Hollywood though it’s probably best we don’t hold our breath on that!