Players died for beating German team, legend says
Ukraine is finding itself dogged by a World War II propaganda myth about an ill-starred soccer match against a German team even as it tries to cement its status as a modern European nation by co-hosting the Euro 2012 soccer championship.
A movie based on the “Death Match” legend, which premiered last month when most former Soviet republics celebrated the 1945 Allied victory over Nazi Germany, has caused an uproar in Ukraine as it prepares for soccer celebrations.
The movie, “Match”, tells the story of Start, a soccer club set up in the summer of 1942 in Nazi-occupied Kiev. Its players, according to the Soviet official line, were arrested and killed after refusing to ‘throw’ a game to a German team.
The story had already inspired several film adaptations, including the 1962 Soviet movie “Tretiy taym” (The Third Half) and the 1981 US film “Escape to Victory” starring Sylvester Stallone and featuring soccer great Pele.
The latest adaptation, by Russian filmmakers and panned by critics both in Russia and Ukraine as too heavy on propaganda, shows an embellished version of the team’s story set against the background of Nazi atrocities such as the Babiy Yar massacre of Kiev’s Jews.
It also describes the 1941 destruction of central Kiev by Soviet forces who booby-trapped key buildings before retreating.
Blasts and subsequent fires then destroyed Khreshchatyk, the city’s main street which now hosts the official Euro 2012 fan zone, leaving about 50000 people homeless and contributing to the eclectic look of today’s Kiev.
What upsets many Ukrainians is that the movie’s protagonists speak Russian while Nazi collaborators speak Ukrainian and wear traditional local clothes and armbands coloured in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag.
Both World War II and the status of the Russian language are contentious issues in Ukraine.
Much of western Ukraine was Polish territory before the war and the region was a scene of clashes between Nazi and Soviet forces, with Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fighters often swapping sides between the two.
While some see Stepan Bandera, the nationalists’ leader of the time, as a hero, others consider him a fascist criminal.
Similarly, the nation is divided over whether the Russian language, widely used in eastern Ukraine, should be officially recognised on par with Ukrainian.
A move to adopt such proposal caused clashes between protesters and police in Kiev just days before the start of the championship.
As if hinting at an official cover-up, a closing text at the end of “Match” cites a finding by German prosecutors in 2005 that there had been no link between the game and the subsequent deaths of several Start players.
In point of fact, however, the myth has been repeatedly debunked since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Vladlen Putistin, a son of one of the Start players, said in a 2002 newspaper interview: “The truth is that no footballers were arrested after the match ... Three of them were executed, but only half a year later, not immediately. I think it was not a punishment for their sports performance as it was thought in the Soviet times.”
Start were indeed unbeaten during their only playing season in the summer of 1942 which culminated in two games against Luftwaffe team Flakelf.
Start won the first game 5-1 and Flakelf sought a rematch three days later, having reinforced their team with stronger players. But Start won again 5-3.
Several Start players were arrested nine days later, but, according to post-Soviet publications, only because they had belonged to Dynamo Kiev.
Dynamo, one of Ukraine’s top clubs these days whose players make up the core of the national team, were then sponsored by NKVD, the Soviet agency which combined the functions of police and secret service.
Four players were later killed by the Nazis while some managed to escape. Two Start players were, in fact, jailed by the Soviet authorities, after they recaptured Kiev, for serving in the collaborationist police force.
“Real life is different from the beautiful legend,” Putistin said in the same interview.