The true story behind ‘Escape to Victory’

We all remember the classic film, where the dream team of Pele and Bobby Moore, team up with Rambo, Michael Caine and Ipswich Town’s John Wark to outwit the Gestapo and escape their prisoner of war camp through the power of beautiful game. Few people know however, that the plot of this football classic is in fact based, on a true story. This is the story of F.C Start and ‘The Death Match’.

Football, in the 1930’s had become extremely popular in Eastern Europe, and one of the more successful teams in Ukraine were Dynamo Kiev . After the German invasion in 1941 however, the national league was cut short, and the players, who joined the army, were captured and sent to prisoner of war camps. In the Spring of 1942, the former Dynamo goalkeeper, Mykola Trusevych was released, and with the support of his boss at Bakery Number 3, set out to find his old team members. Trusevych found eight former Dynamo players, and, accompanied by three from rivals Lokomotiv Kiev began playing local military teams under the name F.C Start.

Following several convincing victories over Hungarian, Romanian and German teams, including a Luftwaffe team known as Flakelf, F.C Start were noticed by the leaders of their German occupiers. It was seen that the team had become a beacon of hope for the population of the city and it was decided that a rematch would be played between Start and Flakelf and this would be used as a propaganda tool for the Germans, therefore a much stronger team would be put out by the Luftwaffe.

The match was held in the Zenit Stadium in Kiev and was refereed by an SS officer. The exact size of the crowd was unknown but it is said that the heavy police presence did not deter the people of Kiev coming out to support their team against the occupiers. Before the match the referee entered the Start dressing room and instructed the players to perform the Nazi salute before the match. The Start players, unlike the England team upon their visit to Berlin in 1937, refused, and instead gave their own slogan, which roughly translates as an appraisal of physical strength.

The Start players were certainly aware before the game that it was in their interest to lose the match. Despite this, by half time F.C Start had come from a goal down to lead 3-1, and the referee returned to ask the players “to think of the consequences” of winning the match. However by the end of the game Start led 5-3, and as the crowd went wild, one of the Start players, it is said, dribbled his way through the opposition defense, rounded the German keeper, and rather than slotting the ball home, turned and kicked the ball straight back towards the center circle. The referee did not even allow the match to reach 90 minutes, out of fear of further embarrassment for the Luftwaffe side.

There are numerous myths that surround the events that took place after the game, but it is thought that the team was broken up shortly after and the players were sent to various work camps, such was the regime.

The heroism of these eleven men was seen as a beacon of hope to the people of Kiev throughout the Nazi occupation, and their courage and bravery is commemorated today. In 1981 the Zenit Stadium, still home of Dynamo Kiev was renamed Start Stadium, and a monument was placed, with the inscription:

“For our beautiful presence

They fell in a fight…

For ages your glory won’t fade,

The fearless hero-athletes.”

The playing record of F.C Start reads, played 9, won 9, scored 58 and conceded 10.

Article courtesy of Matthew Hines from This is Futbol