The tale of four Ukrainian players killed by the Nazis after they beat a German team in 1942 is still provoking debate
It is a muscular memorial, a hefty slab of stone outside the Lobanovsky Stadium in Kiev, the former home of Dynamo, the city’s premier side. On one side of it, a quartet of chiselled figures stare towards a distant horizon. The sculptures represent four footballers, Mykola Korotkykh, Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksy Klimenko and Mykola Trusevych, four victims of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during the Second World War.
The men were murdered by the Nazis, Korotkykh under interrogation, the other three in Syrets labour camp, some time after they had played in a team of Ukrainians that inflicted a humiliating defeat on a German side. Their desperate fate is the basis for the story of the Death Match, a tale that became a legend, one where fact and fiction have become almost inseparable and one that continues to stir controversy to this day.
That the four died at the hands of the Nazis is not in doubt – why they were killed is. Was it because they were the backbone of the team that beat the Germans on the field of play? Or was the football a coincidence and their end the consequence of a more straightforward act of sabotage? There is another suggestion too, that the Nazis believed the players were connected to the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, as the Dynamo club had links to the Soviet secret police.