In the face of tremendous intimidation, Start defeated the Nazi select 5-1 on the 6th of August 1942.
This is an article I originally wrote last year. The BBC's 'Stadiums of Hate' documentary and a desire to redress some of the balance of the 'Nazi' association with which Ukrainian football has now been tagged means that I felt it was worth posting up on Football Speak for hopefully a new and wider audience. Please read on...
For starters, some of you may look at the title of this piece and assume that I'm not even capable of spelling the name “Kiev”. To clarify, Kiev is the word transliterated into English from the Russian version of the name. Kyiv is the English transliteration of the Ukrainian and now official spelling. Every day’s a schoolday eh? Which is a pisser if you were bullied.
As a kid, my Rangers heroes were always the flair players and if they could be mavericks too then so much the better. Davie Cooper, Charlie Miller, Canniggia, Arveladze, Chris Burke…have all occupied a soft spot in my footballing affections at one time or another. At the point where my footballing knowledge was evolving and I was moving from being a kid who just cheered when the team in blue scored to understanding what I was watching…my favourite player was Alexei Mikhailitchenko.
It’s important to put this into some context. Twenty odd years ago the communist system was collapsing across Europe, and countries like the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were splitting up with varying degrees of consequence for their people. In 1992, Mikhailitchenko wasn’t strutting his stuff at the European Championships in the shirt of the Soviet Union, but in the jersey of transition nation “The Commonwealth of Independent States”. The world was changing and my child eyes were more absorbed by it than I even realised at the time.
By this time, the man who’d come 3rd in the voting for 1988’s European Footballer of the Year had moved to Ibrox to join his fellow Ukrainian, Oleg Kuznetsov. Both Kuznetsov and the man known as “Miko” had played against Rangers in 1987 when Dynamo had lost 2-1 on aggregate to Graeme Souness’ side. Rangers survived a post-match scare when Dynamo complained about the width of the pitch (Souness had ordered it be brought in to curtail Dynamo’s slick inter-passing), with the Uefa delegate finding that the pitch did meet the competition minimum.
That Dynamo team were managed by the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy. As well as managing Dynamo from 1974-1990 and then 1997-2002, he also managed the USSR national team in three spells. During his final instalment as USSR boss from 1986-90, the bulk of the team were made up of his Dynamo stars. Names like Baltacha (memorable to Saint Johnstone and Caley Thistle fans too), Rats, Belanov, and Blokhin joined Mikhailitchenko and Kuznetsov in representing Dynamo and the national team. In the USSR the Soviet national team were sometimes known as “The Dynamo team, but weakened by players from other sides…”.
Miko’s country was going through a massive upheaval that could be seen on the news most nights, he played for my club, he was my favourite player, and he was one of three Dynamo players who’d go on to play for Rangers (the best forgotten Oleg Salenko being the third). It was no wonder that my fascination with the Ukraine and Dynamo would grow.
In later years I’d eagerly hoover up whatever bits of information I could find. Dynamo proved to be a truly remarkable club. In terms of personnel, I’ve already given you the rundown on the side of the late 80s, but they also went on to give football the Shevchenko/Rebrov partnership. Beyond the playing staff, they had one of the most iconic managers world football has ever known.
It’s worth taking a moment to mention just how ahead of his time Valeriy Lobanovskiy actually was - in the 1970s he was using computers to collect his own Opta-style stats on his players, their fitness levels, and their movements on the pitch. Aside from Shevchenko, few of his Dynamo players could be said to have hit the same heights away from the club as they did in Kyiv. Even with my youthful worship of Miko, I can still acknowledge that the man Walter Smith described as “economical with his movement” and “warming up with a hairdryer” didn’t reach the same level at Ibrox as he had under Lobanovskiy. In that respect, we can perhaps draw a British parallel with the great man too – Brian Clough. In both cases, players shined under them and struggled once away from them.
Imagine how strong my awe of Dynamo became once I added in the Lobanovskiy factor to things. What’s the added factor that makes a club truly magic though? Look to Barcelona – “Més que un club”. Going back to the 1950s and 1960s Dynamo represented a continuing Ukrainian national spirit and pride. Despite carrying the “Dynamo” name associated with state security, when it came to games against Moscow Dynamo, they were playing for Ukrainian pride against the Moscow centralised state. A situation made all the more difficult by the high-level government patronage of Moscow Dynamo.
For Dynamo Kyiv's proudest time though, you have to go back to the 1940s. Many of us will have seen the film ‘Escape To Victory’ and laughed at the notion of Sylvester Stallone’s goalkeeping defeating the Nazis. The film does have its roots in reality though. In the 1940s a team called FK Start began playing matches in Nazi-occupied Kyiv to boost the morale of the local people. The team was made up by mainly of Dynamo players, and began to attract the ire of the occupying forces because of their success. Teams from the Nazi-aligned Romanian and Hungarian garrisons were comfortably defeated, leading eventually to a German armed forces team known as Flakelf being put together to play the Ukrainian upstarts and put them in their place.
In the face of tremendous intimidation, Start defeated the Nazi select 5-1 on the 6th of August 1942. Flakelf demanded a re-match. This match was played on the 9th of August, in front of German troops, with an SS officer refereeing. The Start players were told they had to greet their opposition with a Hitler salute, an instruction they defied. After being ‘warned’ at half-time about the consequences of winning, the Start players were leading 5-3 with a few minutes left. One of their defenders, Klimenko, got the ball, beat the Flakelf defence, took the ball round the keeper…then humiliated the Nazis by turning and kicking the ball back towards the halfway line before it went in.
Around a week later, the Start players were rounded up, arrested, and tortured by the Gestapo. One died under this torture. The rest were sent to concentration camps, where another three would die. The final insult was that when the Soviets re-took Kyiv, they viewed the players as collaborators for having played in the match at all and its existence was largely suppressed. Andy Dougan’s excellent book “Dynamo: Defending The Honour of Kiev” tells the story in far greater and better detail. I highly recommend you seek out a copy.
So, surely by now I’ve sold you on Dynamo Kyiv? What’s the only problem? Actually getting to see a match there. Ukraine isn’t part of the EU and you won’t find Kyiv on Ryanair or Easyjet’s routes (yet). As Euro 2012 fans are now discovering, hotels in the city are pretty expensive for what you get. Hopefully the Euro 2012 construction boom leaves some cheaper rooms in its wake. In 2009 though, I was lucky enough to be able to make it to Kyiv to seen Dynamo in action. After so many years of wondering about the city and the club, there was the slight fear that both may disappoint. I needn’t have worried.
From the golden domes of St Michael’s Cathedral, to the towering Rodina Mat statue…Kyiv is beautiful and awe-inspiring. What of Dynamo though? Now named after their iconic former boss, home is the Valeriy Lobanovskiy stadium. Set in a picturesque park, with a frontage of classical-style pillars, it’s hard not to fall in love with the relatively small 16,900 capacity stadium, and its statue of Lobanovskiy. Especially when seats on the halfway line were coming in at around £4.
I’ve mentioned some of the famous players who’ve been on Dynamo’s books over the years, but there was one player from the current era who I was desperate to see in action. Artem Milevskiy. Dynamo’s captain, and a man I remembered scoring with a Panenka-style penalty in Ukraine’s 2006 World Cup 2nd round shoot-out against Switzerland. A decent amount of bottle for a 21 year old!
My Dad and I went to see Dynamo play Tavriya Simferopol in a Ukrainian league match. Outside the ground my pilgrimage was made a little bit more complete when I bought an Alexei Mikhailitchenko pennant that was on sale outside. Inside, the ground wasn’t full, but a couple of sections had ultras who were being led in organised chants by guys with loudspeakers. Their sections bounced up and down shouting “Hey! Hey! We support Dynamo Kyiv!” There’s still a childish thrill about foreign football fans chanting something you can understand! (Apart from the Ajax fans at Ibrox chanting “you’re shit and you know you are” about fifteen years ago…)
What about the match itself? What if I’d travelled all that way to see a 0-0 draw, or even a rare Dynamo home defeat? They won 6-0. Milevskiy? Milevskiy did this.
If you get the chance, go to Kyiv, drink Nemiroff vodka, and watch Dynamo Kyiv. My 2nd team, but deservedly many people’s first.