‘The Death Match’: The True Story of the Soccer Match That Shamed the Nazis | Culture

In the graphic novel The death match (Desfiladero Ediciones, 2021), the screenwriter Pepe Gálvez and the cartoonist Guillem Escriche describe a true story of heroism in the face of barbarism. On August 9, 1942, a football match was played in Kiev that cracked the hieratic smile of the Nazi occupiers. On the field of play they were 11 against 11, but the difference in vital circumstances was enormous. The local team was made up of poorly fed players, deeply scarred by repression, with hardly any preparation time and with the ice of a genocidal invasion on their necks. As one of the protagonists of the story says, they were “the remains of a defeat.” For its part, the visiting team was a team prepared by the Luftwaffe with the sole objective of winning and humiliating the rival; wanted to show that the Aryan race was also superior on the field of play compared to those it considered subhuman (submen) for being Slavs. They were the soccer team that represented Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s massive offensive against the Soviet Union. A war front that was choked first at the gates of Moscow and then in Stalingrad, leaving millions of deaths in its wake.

From the perspective of a party in a time of bitterness, a graphic novel with an agile pace is built, a well-documented script and a treatment of color in the illustrations and characters that perfectly reflects that time. Gálvez and Escriche tell the vicissitudes of that group of players who meet again after the Nazi invasion working in a bakery. Their owner has incorporated them to the trade avoiding difficulties, with the intention of reassembling a soccer team with players from two emblematic teams of the city: Dinamo and Lokomotiv. The new team will take the name of FC Start (Home) and will become an unbeatable team, an example of collective resistance and whose players will jump onto the field full of dignity until the final match against the Nazi team.

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Two cartoons from 'The party of death'.
Two cartoons from ‘The game of death’.Guillem Escriche

Gálvez and Escriche recover the vicissitudes of that group and their circumstances from the perspective of the importance of historical memory and the need not to relativize the horrors of the past. For Gálvez, “the Ukrainian players were a group of survivors facing a brutal challenge”, who jumped onto the pitch motivated “by the vindication of life”. And Escriche adds: “We had the responsibility to be very honest with what we were going to tell. There are usually two versions of that match. One very heroic and another that takes away iron, we had the obligation to be honest, part of our job is to position ourselves, but without lying or altering what happened. “

Cover of 'The party of death'.
Cover of ‘The party of death’.Guillem Escriche

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At the Kiev Zenit stadium, FC Start won, although many players were later arrested, tortured and deported to concentration camps. Several died before Kiev was liberated from the Nazis on November 6, 1943. The feat was echoed after the war in books, films and documentaries. The cinema reflected from different perspectives that David vs. Goliath encounter. There were stories more or less approximate to what really happened, sometimes treated from the patriotic exaltation and others as a diffuse reference to tell a story of resistance. The best known film is Evasion or victory (1981), by John Houston, starring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Max von Sydow, and in which soccer referents such as Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardines and Pelé appear. However, the plot, the composition of the characters and the location of the final meeting in Paris have little to do with the original story. Of the documentation they consulted, for the authors the most reliable is the book Win to death, by Pierre-Louis Basse, published in France in 2012.

The death match it is also a useful testimony so as not to forget the excesses of totalitarianism. Soviet writer Boris Polevoi covered for the daily Truth the Nuremberg trial against the Nazi hierarchs after the Second World War. His notes would be published twenty years later in the book After all. In his chronicle, Polevoi describes how another Russian writer, Alexei Tolstoy, in a recess in his trial addresses his colleagues in the press after the screening of cinematographic recordings full of horror, destruction and death: “Fascism is the quintessence of the greed, vileness, abjection and cowardice. Why kill the wounded? Why annihilate thousands of peaceful people? What rationality is there in it? Everything so that someone, God save us!, Does not find out that you are not a giant but, simply, a fearful psychopath, and that people do not stop fearing you … “. Against this genocidal cowardice, a group of footballers and friends won, “happy on a pitch” as Mario Kempes points out in the prologue of the book, in a match that pitted life against death.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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