Remembering football's Death Match

By Mark PougatchBBC Sport presenter

The Olympic Stadium in Kiev is a fitting venue for the Euro 2012 final on Sunday night but just a mile away in this city laden with beautiful churches is a much more intimate ground.

The Zenit Stadium has one sagging, concrete terrace where wooden benches tip the spectators towards the pitch and a blue stand, paint peeling and cracking, straddles the halfway line.

The clue to this historic venue sits above the colonnades on the entrance to the ground, with the words 'START'. On this patch of ground in 1942 one of football's more unusual matches took place.

Most people will have seen, or at least heard of, the film 'Escape to Victory'external-link starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone. It is about a team of prisoners of war who play football against their German captors, only to find themselves part of a Nazi propaganda stunt.

The inspiration came from a match played at the Zenit Stadium in August 1942 in occupied Kiev between a German military side, Falkelf, and a team called FC Start, made up mainly of Dynamo Kiev players.

It became known as the Death Match and what started out as a means of the Germans showing their sporting superiority was eventually twisted by the Soviet state to suit its own needs under communism. After Wednesday's semi-final between Portugal and Spain on BBC One, we hope to separate the myth from the reality.

As well as football, history has always been a passion of mine and particularly this part of the world. My paternal grandfather was born in Ukraine, the Jewish son of a cabinet maker who emigrated west.

I had read Andy Dougan's excellent book about what happened to this bunch of Kiev footballers during the Nazi occupation but the more we delved the more it became clear that the story the communists pedalled after the war wasn't the actual truth. Our interviewees made this abundantly clear.

The Great Patriotic War Museum in Kiev was built to celebrate the Soviet victory over the Nazi fascists. The imposing Motherland statue is 100 metres high, towering over a fascinating museum which houses authentic German uniforms, helmets, guns, Iron Crosses - and a genuine poster promoting the Death Match on 9 August 1942.

If you are ever in Kiev, it's a must to visit and Marina Shevchenko (not a relative of Andriy, I think!) is a wonderful guide.

The Start stadium in Kiev where the 'Death Match' took place
The old stadium in Kiev as it looks now

Two-and-a-half thousand people, soldiers and locals watched the game on a hot afternoon and we spoke to Oleg, who was an 11 year old that day. Sharp as a button, gold teeth glinting in the sunshine, he showed us photographs and cuttings of FC Start and remembers the pride in their winning 5-3 against the occupiers who classed them as "untermenschen", which means subhuman.

Four of the FC Start team that day were later killed by the Nazis. One of them, Nikolai Korokykh, was a Soviet security officer before the war. Her hand trembling, his daughter Yevgenia showed us a photograph of her father, a handsome man with his hair swept back, who was tortured to death.

Such was the pressure to fall in with the communist tale after the war that one of the players who did survive, Mikhail Putistin, apparently became an alcoholic.

This story has been told a few times but, more often than not, the film makers haven't challenged the Soviet version of events. With the focus of the football world on Ukraine at the moment, here was a chance to get closer to the truth.

Such is the interest in the Death Match that our film has been picked up by many international broadcasters. There is a longer version of the film available on the BBC sport website.

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