Death Match: Know what happened to the team that challenged the Nazis

You may have heard a lot of people complain that football is no longer the same, arguing that clubs have become totally commercial organizations and that players no longer "wear" team shirts, playing for those who offer the most money. These people are certainly right, and there was a time when sport was taken very seriously, even serving as a political tool.

Perhaps one of the most emblematic examples of what we are talking about is the "Departure of Death", celebrated in Ukraine on August 9, 1942. The game took place at the Zenit Stadium located in Kiev, then Nazi-occupied city. The teams that clashed that day were Soviet prisoners of war on one side and their German captors on the other.


Kiev city during World War II Image source: Reproduction / Wikipedia

The prisoners' team, called FC Start, was mainly made up of players from the famous Soviet club Dynamo - and other teams like Lokomotiv. At the time, after scoring several teams from German-dominated countries, FC Start gained prominence and their victories began to cause discomfort among the Nazis, who banned new matches to prevent them from being demoralized against the Kiev population.

Thus arose the proposal of the duel, and the real intention of the Departure of Death was to prove to the world German superiority. An estimated 2, 500 spectators, including soldiers and locals, watched the game, and the prisoners' team beat the Nazis 5-1.

Poster announcing the "Departure of Death" Image Source: Reproduction / Wikipedia

After the defeat there was still a rematch, in which FC Start won again by 5 to 3, even after - supposedly - the players were threatened with death during the break to let the Germans win the game.

The story that circulated after the duels was that the Ukrainians were executed while still wearing their team uniforms, which turned them into species of communist regime martyrs. So instead of the game being propaganda for the Nazis, the Soviets took advantage of the situation, who used the occasion to praise communism.


However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a new version was revealed by witnesses and family members of FC Start players. According to Valentyn Shcherbachov, a historian who investigated the event, some information regarding the athletes' departure and fate was manipulated, and the whole thing didn't happen exactly as many people think.

Image Source: Playback / BBC

As it turned out, the Germans knew that Dynamo was part of the NKVD - or People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs - so the players were interrogated by the Gestapo. Since the Nazis could not prove that the Soviets were involved in obscure activities, they were sent to concentration camps. What's more, only three members of FC Start were originally from Dynamo.

In addition, instead of the entire team being arrested, the Nazis captured nine players and divided them into three groups. Only the members of one of these groups were executed - not that it is good! -, and other players eventually died over several months after the Death Match, but not through the famous post-game execution.

Incidentally, during a case in Hamburg in 2005, it was stated that there is insufficient evidence to support the version that FC Start players were executed after beating the Nazis. Regardless of this bloody detail, what matters is that the matches really did happen, and although no one is sure whether or not the Soviets were threatened, the players faced the Nazis even at the risk of losing their lives.