The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

The Famous Dynamo — Defending the Honor of Kiev

Posted by steigs on May 12, 2008

The MLS has a mixed, at best, history of team names.  (San Jose Clash?  Really?)  One that’s good, I think, is the Houston Dynamo.  Granted, it was after taking a mulligan (remember Houston 1836?) but it’s got some connection to the energy industry in the region and has some international flair.  Plus, I like the orange.  Reminds me of the Dutch.

In my travels, I managed to see a but of the most famous Dynamo team in the five billion person party, Dynamo Kiev.  These days, they’re one of the two powers of the Ukrainian league, presently waging their usual battle to the wire with Shaktar Donetsk for the championship.  (One point back with a game to go.) 

Want to hear more about Dynamo, their mad genius of a coach, and the legendary “death match?”  Read on after the jump!

Kiev – May 2004

 

I arrive in Kiev, once the third city of the Soviet Union and now the capital of an independent Ukraine, early on Friday evening.  The long bus ride from the airport to the city leaves me feeling like I am in a science fiction film, transported to a dystopian future.  The highway is broad and well-paved but there is little traffic.  Shiny new gas stations line the way and, just a bit back from the road, a series of soaring modernist apartment blocks.  Yet the bus stops are packed with weary people and hitchhikers abound.  No one appears to be using the gas stations at all.  The locals seem like survivors after an apocalypse, left with an infrastructure too grand for their present circumstances.

 

When we get to downtown Kiev, I hop out of the bus and head for my hotel.  Travel to the Ukraine is still complicated for an American, involving a visa and an underdeveloped tourist network, so I have arranged my trip through a specialist agency in London.  As part of the deal, I have also lined up a ticket to see Dynamo Kiev, the leading Ukrainian team.

 

It is only when I open the ticket envelope waiting with the hotel desk clerk that I realize Dynamo’s schedule had changed.  When I had bought the package — only a month before — Dynamo had a Sunday afternoon game, which would leave me time to soak up the atmosphere and history of Kiev first.  Instead, they’re playing on Friday night…as in now!

 

Luckily, Dynamo Stadium is nearby.  Kiev sits on the Dnieper River, a wide waterway hurrying along to the Black Sea a few hundred miles to the south.  The evening is warm — it’s the time of the year when spring is changing into summer.  The Ukraine is in the southwest of the old Soviet Union and the party bosses used to vacation on its Black Sea coast.  It is geographically large, as big as France, much of it the endless plains of the steppe.  No wonder the Cossacks, those marauding cowboys of the East, came from the Ukraine. 

 

Chernobyl, infamous site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, is only about forty miles to the north.  Scary, huh?  My guidebook offers reassurance that “Chernobyl does not pose a serious health threat for travelers in Ukraine unless you plan on camping next to the reactor for an extended period of time.”  Reactor camping.  Sounds like a form of extreme sport, that.  (And, in fact, I read later of a burgeoning Chernobyl tourism industry of trips to the abandoned zone around the reactor, although no camping seems to be involved.)

 

The heart of Kiev is on a bluff, rising well above the river.  Dynamo Stadium is tucked into a riverside park, high on the bluff, in a bucolic setting.  It is an unpretentious bowl, an oval with a single tier of seats, well-lit and boasting a modern scoreboard.  It seats around 20,000 and is about two-thirds full when I arrive.  Dynamo use the larger National Olympic Complex stadium — which is on the other, more inland, side of downtown — for big occasions, such as games against famous European opponents.

 


I arrive just as the second half begins, with Dynamo already up 2-0 on Sheriff Tiraspol, a team from Moldova, a nearby fellow piece of the former Soviet empire, now an independent sliver of a country.  (The name Sheriff refers to the two former Soviet policemen who founded the larger — and potentially shady — business group of which the team is a part.)  The crowd is Friday night festive and relaxed.

 

The reason for the schedule change was made evident at the stadium entrance — Dynamo is hosting a tournament to honor their legendary coach Valeri Lobanovsky, who died in 2002.  Dynamo has invited three other teams from the former Soviet Union — Skonto Riga and Dynamo Tbilisi being the others — and this is the championship game, such as it is.

 

There is a fresh statue of Lobanovsky by the entrance, along with an arch describing the tourney as “International Football, in Memory of Valeri Lobanovsky.”  Lobanovsky and Dynamo were synonymous for decades.  Lobanovsky was a mad genius of a coach, in love with speed and quick passing, demanding players execute intricate, well-rehearsed patterns of runs.  A system guy, but what a system!  He also pioneered the use of computers to analyze player performance and fitness.

 

Lobanovsky was the man behind three great Dynamo teams in successive decades.  He first took over Dynamo Kiev in 1974 and almost immediately brought major results.  Dynamo won the old European Cup Winners Cup, a predecessor of today’s UEFA Cup, in 1975.  Dynamo also won the Soviet league in 1974, 1975, and 1977.  A few years later, Lobanovsky built another great team, winning another Cup Winners Cup in 1986, as well as Soviet league titles in 1980, 1981, 1985, and 1986.  His time with Dynamo Kiev was broken up by stints coaching the Soviet national team, such as during the 1988 European Championships.

 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lobanovsky spent a few undoubtedly lucrative years coaching national teams in the Middle East before returning to Dynamo one final time in 1997.  The team had been bought by an oligarch, one of those politically-connected, suddenly wealthy men who have marked the former Soviet Union.  Dynamo now dominated the new Ukrainian league, running off 11 consecutive titles so far, beginning in 1993.  This last Lobanovsky team peaked in the late 1990s, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1999, before the new capitalism of European soccer took its toll, and star players like Andriy Shevchenko were sold abroad.  Lobanovsky himself left in 2000, moving over to coach the Ukrainian national team for a couple of years before his death.

 

In recent years, Dynamo’s supremacy in the Ukraine has been challenged by Shakhtar Donetsk, a team bought in the mid-1990s by another of the post-Soviet world’s oligarchs.  Shakhtar, based in the traditional industrial and mining east of the Ukraine, even have more season ticket holders than Dynamo.  If Dynamo’s championship string is to be broken, it will surely be by Shaktar.

 


With their remarkable track record, one can make a case that Dynamo Kiev is the leading Eastern bloc team in European soccer.  For most of these years, of course, Dynamo Kiev played in the old Soviet league, challenging Moscow teams for supremacy.  All told, Dynamo Kiev won 13 Soviet championships, rivaling Spartak Moscow.  What really sets Dynamo Kiev apart has been success in European competitions.  Other Eastern teams did manage to win a European title — Steaua Bucharest upset Barcelona for the 1986 European Cup, for example — but no other Eastern team has been a contender so repeatedly.

 

While I’m figuring out where my seat is, Dynamo adds a third goal.  A wave of horn-type noise washes over us, like an orchestra of kazoos has begun to play, razzing Sheriff.  The air is gone from the game, although for all I know it never had much in the first place, being a glorified friendly.  An array of substitutes come into the game.  I haven’t even figured out who is who yet — beyond the fact that Dynamo is in white shirts with a blue slash and Sheriff is in yellow — and they are changing it all around on me.

 

Both teams are playing calmly now, with Dynamo still doing the bulk of the attacking.  Sheriff look more interested in getting out without additional embarrassment.  It’s not to be.  In the 87th minute, Dynamo scores a beauty.  The ball is passed into the Sheriff box and gets flicked over to an open Dynamo player.  He evades a frantically closing defender with a stepover move and then virtually dribbles the ball into goal.  4-0!  Cue the horns!

 

Dessert, after what appears to have been a fine feast for the Dynamo fans.  Too bad I arrived midway through the main course.  Lobanovsky, I’m sure would have approved, especially of that final goal.  As we leave the stadium, a fireworks display erupts into the night sky.  I follow fans back into downtown Kiev, looking to sample Ukrainian beer.  (Not bad, I find.)

 

The next morning I take the subway out from downtown to the Dorohozhychi station.  America is expert at building multi-lane, high-quality freeways.  The old Soviet Union, on the other hand, was expert at subways.  The Kiev subway, built after World War II, is deep and well-made, with trains zipping in several directions with great frequency.  Marbled halls, grand vaulted ceilings — you feel like it is a serious business, this subway. 

 

I soon arrive at the park known as Babi Yar.  Lobanovsky is not the only legend of Dynamo Kiev.  In fact, he is not the legend at all.  There is another statue outside Dynamo Stadium, one which has stood for much longer.  A granite relief in the socialist realist style, it depicts a heroic group of men and remembers — what else? — lives lost in World War II.  Dynamo Kiev, you see, lays claim to the legendary “death match” story, which has always given the team a romantic and nationalistic air.

 

Kiev was an important prize for the invading Nazis in 1941.  The city fell on September 19th, three months after the initial attack on the Soviet Union.  It was during the summer of 1942 that the “death match” supposedly took place.  Here’s how Galeano describes it in Soccer in Sun and Shadow:

 

During the German occupation they committed the insane act of defeating Hitler’s squad in the local stadium.  Having been warned, ‘If you win, you die,’ they started out resigned to losing, trembling with fear and hunger, but in the end they could not resist the temptation of dignity.  When the game was over all eleven were shot with their shirts on at the edge of a cliff.”


This is the version the Soviets told in the post-war years.  A mutated version with a happy ending, reset in Paris, was made into the movie Victory with Pele and Sylvester Stallone (the latter playing the inevitable American goalie).  Decades later it continues to have a cult following among soccer fans.

 

The truth, while still heroic, seems to be more complicated.  As outlined for English language readers by Andy Dougan, in Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev, a pseudo-league was organized in occupied Kiev during the summer of 1942, with some teams composed of locals and some from the invading forces, the Germans and their allies.  A bit of sport to keep the soldiers amused and the occupied distracted.  Several former Dynamo players had found sanctuary as workers in an industrial bakery and they came to form the core of a team, known as “FC Start.”  It is what happened to them that, thanks to post-war propaganda, become the legendary “death match.”

 

Before I summarize Dougan’s version, I want to pause to point out that no one involved — Russian and Ukrainian communists, German Nazis, Hungarians — appears to have said, “Hey, what are we doing playing this English game?”  Soccer had alreadly become so thoroughly embedded in local cultures across Europe that it was their game too, not some odd politically-suspect English pastime.  The Soviet league was already going in the 1930s.  Dynamo Kiev had finished as high as second (in 1936).

 

I should also explain how soccer was usually organized in the communist bloc.  Under communism, teams frequently represented a specific economic sector as part of the broader reorganization of society into groups — often industry-based — of workers.  Lokomotiv Moscow, for example, was the team of the railroads and their workers, as was Rapid Bucharest.  CSKA Moscow and CSKA Sofia were both teams representing the armies of the respective nations.  You might think that a Dynamo team would represent electrical or power plant workers.  (Chernoybl, perhaps?)  Actually, Dynamo Kiev was the team of…the secret police.  So Dynamo Kiev players were, at least technically, secret policemen — a fact that put those who ended up in occupied Kiev at particular risk.

 

At the beginning of the summer, veteran goalie Nikolai Trusevich, who helped to organize the team, is said to have told the others, “We do not have weapons but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch.”  They found some red jerseys to play in, the colors of the USSR.  FC Start began with an easy win over Rukh, a team of local nationalists who had chosen to work with the Nazis.  Then they beat a team of Hungarians and one of Romanians, the latter 11-0.  It began to get tense when FC Start spanked a German military team 6-0.  It was one thing to beat Nazi allies like the Romanians.  But to defeat the Germans themselves, that was another matter.  The team was becoming popular — it is said that, for example, the Romanians would visit the FC Start locker room to smuggle food to the players.

 


FC Start beat another Hungarian team and then beat the same team again, after the losers demanded a rematch.  The original slate of games was done.  But the authorities were unhappy.  So one more match was scheduled B between FC Start and Flakelf, a skilled German team, including some Luftwaffe pilots.  FC Start beat them easily, 5-1.  Uh oh.  The following day posters appeared around Kiev announcing a rematch.

 

August 9, 1942.  It was a hot Sunday and kick-off was set for 5 pm.  German soldiers took the seats in the small stadium — not Dynamo Stadium, by the way — but there were plenty of locals in attendance as well.  Standing room only.  Before the game, the referee — in an SS uniform! — visited the FC Start dressing room, a rather clear signal to the team not to expect any calls in their favor.  He advised them to greet the opposition in “our fashion” B with a Nazi salute, in other words, and a “Heil Hitler.”  After he left, there was a debate.  Should they play at all?  Should they play and not try to win?  Should they just go for it?

 

FC Start came out to play.  The teams lined up.  The Germans had added some new players since the last game, perhaps to make the team stronger.  The Germans gave their salute.  Attention turned to the Start players.  They gave a different salute and shouted “FizcultHura!”  This translates as “Long live sport” and, more importantly, it was a tradition at Soviet sporting events.  A clear signal of their own.  They were not going to bend.

 

After that opening statement, it was not a surprise that the game started tensely.  About ten minutes in, one of the Germans made a run into the box and kicked a diving Trusevich in the head, leaving him unconscious for a few minutes and groggy for a time after that.  FC Start being short on substitutes, Trusevich insisted on staying in the game, although he gave up a goal almost immediately thereafter.  The play was tough and physical, with the Germans able to foul at will.  Still, FC Start managed to get a goal to tie the game.  This seem to stun the Germans and, disorganized, they let FC Start score twice more before the half.  3-1, FC Start.

 

There were half-time visitors to the FC Start dressing room.  The leader of Rukh, the team of Ukrainian nationalists working with the Nazis, encouraged the players to protect themselves and others by not playing so well in the second half.  Then an SS officer stopped by to compliment them on their first half play before noting that they could not expect to win the game so they should think about the consequences before they went back onto the field.  A Hollywood scene, it must have been.

 

In the second half, both teams scored twice, making it 5-3, but the German team never threatened to win.  The “temptation of dignity,” as Galeano put it, was too strong, perhaps.  And the same devoted love of their country that drove the Soviets on through the war, despite all that the Nazis threw at them.

 

Unlike the romantic legend, the players were not immediately seized at the conclusion of the game.  They were nervous, certainly, having now become a symbol of local defiance to the Nazis.  They went back to work at the bakery.  FC Start even played one more game, demolishing Rukh one more time.  It was after this epilogue of further insult to the powers that be that the players were rounded up by the Gestapo.  One player, an actual active member of the secret police (unlike the rest, who were merely nominal members, died during “interrogation.”  The rest ended up at a prison camp on the outskirts of Kiev.

 


In January 1943, the surrounded German forces at Stalingrad surrendered.  The tide on the Eastern Front was turning.  On February 23rd, a spate of sabotage attacks rippled through Nazi-occupied territory, including a raid on a plant in Kiev.  An angry prison camp commander decreed that one out of every three prisoners would be shot in retribution.  Three of the FC Start players, including Trusevich, were victims of the spree.  It was said that Trusevich died shouting “Red sport will never die!”  While wearing his goalie jersey, the only warm clothing he had. 

 

Kiev was recaptured by the Soviets in November 1943.  By the end of the year, the propaganda machinery was already turning, building the legend of the “death match.”  This made it somewhat awkward for the surviving players, who were nervous that state security services might take offense if they questioned the official version — and there was a risk that they could even be accused of collaborating themselves, for taking part in games with the Nazis in occupied Kiev.  The official version also had some mighty potential protectors.  Nikita Khrushchev was in charge of the Ukraine when it fell to the Nazis and also oversaw the investigation of wartime atrocities in Kiev.  Khrushchev is said to have been a Dynamo Kiev fan and he blessed the official “death match” story.  Later, Leonid Brezhnev, a Ukrainian himself, made sure the players were acclaimed as Soviet heroes, including the erection of the statue outside Dynamo Stadium.  It was only in the 1990s that the true, more nuanced, story has begun to emerge.

 

It is the sort of tale that leaves you asking yourself what you would have done in the same situation.  It’s a bit Hemingway-esqe, perhaps, to wonder if you could manage to find that kind of grace under that kind of pressure.  An example closer to home was the remarkable courage displayed by New York firefighters on September 11th.  Could I do that?  Will I ever be so tested?  Sports are merely a game, I know, but they are often an attempt to ask that question, even in a wholly inadequate manner, whether you are surfing an immense wave or stalking a deer or even merely staring at a twisting five foot putt to win the hole.  It=s a kind of rehearsal for a play we say we hope never to stage.  Secretly, though, you wonder. 

 

The exit to the Dorohozhychi subway stop puts you right into Babi Yar, a city park a few blocks long, an oasis of green gone a bit shabby and overgrown.  Old men read newspapers on benches, mothers push buggies with infants, dogs race free of leashes, eager to sniff and explore.  Just another Saturday morning at the park, with people finding any excuse to stroll in the fresh spring air.

 

It was here in this park that the bodies of Trusevich and the other two FC Start players ended up after they were killed in the nearby camp.  In this fate they were hardly unique, including (of course) many many Jews, many bodies dumped here in the park’s valleys.   History is filled with failed empires that left an immense trail of death but the Nazis seem exceptional for the way mass murder was the point of empire, not just a side effect of ruthlessness.

 


The most notorious day in Babi Yar’s history was September 29, 1941, a few short days after the Nazis took the city.  All of the Jews living in Kiev — a population numbering perhaps 175,000 — were ordered to report to a certain intersection and it was widely assumed they were going to be deported.  Instead, they were beaten and machine-gunned.  The Nazis — ever meticulous bureaucrats — counted 33,771 dead in their records over September 29th and 30th.  The equivalent of the whole population of my home town, all murdered and tossed away in 48 hours.  A sobering thought, to say the least.

 

One of Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s most famous works is “Babii Yar.”  It reads, in part:

 

Here all things scream silently,

and, baring my head,

slowly I feel myself

      turning gray.

And I myself

        am one massive, soundless scream

above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am

        each old man

                 here shot dead.

I am

       every child

                                      here shot dead.

Nothing in me

          shall ever forget!…”

 

I locate the startling Soviet-era memorial, a statue of tumbling people on the edge of a depression in the park, and pay my respects.  The children’s memorial, on the other side of the subway station, is more moving, a trio of kids depicted as broken toy puppets.  I feel shaken.  Yet all around me people are treating Babi Yar as just another park.  I could never take a Saturday morning walk here without thinking of the oceans of blood spilled decades before.  “Nothing in me/shall ever forget” indeed.

 

I suppose, however, an American should not judge others for their capacity to move beyond such horrors.  We have, as a relative matter, experienced so little of them.  Stalin’s drive to collectivize resisting Ukrainian farmers led to a massive famine in the early 1930s.  Estimates of the resulting dead range from three to six million.  Then came World War II.  Decades of totalitarian repression.  Even the Chernobyl accident in 1986 killed — over time — perhaps 1,000, with another 200,000 moved and resettled.  Little wonder that the Ukrainian national anthem feels the need to assert that “Ukraine has not yet died.”  It is not for lack of others attempting to kill it.

 

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4 Responses to “The Famous Dynamo — Defending the Honor of Kiev”

  1. Steigs,
    Thanks for the story. You bring up details that I did not know. There was a movie in the old Soviet Union called “Tretiy Time” – Russian for 3rd period. As there are only 2 periods in soccer, the 3rd one was the one they got shot. Only they did not show that in the movie. In the movie they were just loaded onto a bus and driven somewhere, presumably to the place of execution. Although, it could be interpreted that they were taken to a prison camp, closer to the truth.
    There is also an American movie called “Victory” with basically the same plot. Pele was in it. Stalone was also in it.
    A little clarification. Dynamo was not a secret police team, but just regular police. Although, before the war the line was blurred: they both reported to NKVD – Ministry of the Interior. They split after the war: the secret police part became part of MGB (Ministry of State Security, KGB’s predecessor), while the regular police remained under the Ministry of the Interior.
    Best of luck.
    Eric.

  2. Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention: you have already mentioned the movie “Victory” in your post.
    Eric.

  3. steigs said

    Thanks for the info about the pre-war police and the old Soviet film, Eric. Interesting to hear.

  4. […] by steigs on September 17, 2008 Awhile back, I wrote of the legend of Dynamo Kiev’s Valeriy Lobanovsky, the coach who built what may have been Eastern Europe’s best team.  Lobanovsky is gone now, […]

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