If you take a look at the official FIFA records, you will find that the Ukrainian national team, as a separate and recognized entity, has existed for only twenty years. Over these two decades their record has been rather unimpressive: one World Cup appearance in 2006, where they advanced to the quarterfinals and automatic qualification for Euro 2012 as co-hosts. But this unremarkable performance belies a glorious footballing legacy that Ukraine left behind as part of the Soviet Union.
The books say that Russia is the official successor national team of the USSR. This appropriation of history overlooks just how influential Ukrainian players and clubs were in the Soviet era. Ukraine exists as an independent state since just 1992. But football in Ukraine goes much further back.
As it happened in so many corners of the globe, from the River Plate to Rotterdam, football first came to Ukraine, when it was still a part of Imperial Russia, by way of what David Goldblatt called the ‘informal empire,’ the assortment of British soldiers, merchants, officials, and businessmen that travelled the world and brought the game with them. British sailors were seen playing the game at the docks in the Black Sea port of Odessa as early as the 1860s, and in 1878 the first ever football club, the Odessa British Athletic Club, was formed in Ukraine, although it was composed entirely of Englishmen. Six years later the club built the first ever football pitch in the country. Though at first treated with scepticism by the local population, the appeal of the game proved utterly irresistible and quickly spread across the land. It became especially popular in Western Ukraine, where its growth was aided by the Sokol movement, and it was in Lviv that the first documented match on the territory of Ukraine took place.
The match was an unorthodox affair to say the least. On July 14, 1894, several sporting tournaments were held in Lviv, among them a football match between the Sokol clubs of Lviv and Krakow. Włodzimierz Chomicki put the Lviv side ahead in the 6th minute, but the referee called the match off soon afterward, as there was to be a gymnastics competition held in the same stadium. Chomicki’s goal is considered the first in the history of both Polish and Ukrainian football. Quite appropriate that these two nations co-hosted the first European championships to ever be held in Eastern Europe.
Football’s popularity continued to spread in the early 1900s. Gymanstics-Sports Club, later renamed Pohon, was founded in Lviv in 1904 and would go on to become one of the best sides of the Polish league in the interwar period. It was in Lviv that Ukraine’s first city-wide league was organized in 1906. Meanwhile the Sokol movement continued to be influential and helped establish the game in Kyiv. By 1911 city-wide championships were organized in both Kyiv and Odessa. It appeared that the momentum of football’s rise was unstoppable. But in 1914, as the European empires and democracies mobilized their armies and prepared for war on an unprecedented, devastating scale, football was put on hold indefinitely.
As a result of the First World War and the collapse of Imperial Europe, the borders were redrawn across the continent. Most of Western Ukraine now fell under the sovereignty of the recreated Polish state, while the Trans Carpathian region and parts of South-western Ukraine were ceded to Czechoslovakia and Romania, respectively. Though divided between different nations, Ukrainian teams continued to prosper. Lviv, now a part of Poland, remained a footballing powerhouse. Pohon won the Polish league on four occasions, while Sparta Lviv were runners up to Wisła Krakow in the only Polish Cup ever held before the outbreak of the Second World War. Rus’ of Uzhorod won the Slovak championship in 1933, though this was not an official national title.
The rest of Ukraine was, by 1922, incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Kharkiv, then the capital of the republic, emerged as the dominant force in Ukrainian football. Teams from Kharkiv won eight of the eleven national tournaments held in Ukrainian SSR from 1921-1936. The Kharkiv side also defeated the selection from Leningrad in the first Soviet-wide cup competition in 1924, the predecessor to the Soviet League. Several Kharkiv players featured on the USSR national team. During this era, teams were not yet organized as clubs in the modern sense. Instead, the teams were the best players taken from each city, playing in a Ukraine-wide knockout cup format. But this would soon change. The legendary club side Dynamo Kyiv, formed in 1927, won the last of the Ukrainian SSR tournaments in 1936, the first time a ‘club’ triumphed in these cup competitions. 1936 was also the first time the USSR championship was held and organized in a league format. Dynamo finished as runners up in the inaugural competition.
Curiously, six decades before Ukraine played their first ever official match; an unofficial national Ukrainian national team took the field in an unrecognized friendly against Turkey. In 1933, the Turkish national team were on their way home after having defeated the Soviet Union 2-1. But while en route to Odessa, from where they were to complete their final leg of their journey across the Black Sea, they were challenged to a rematch by a side made up exclusively of Ukrainian players. The match took place in Kharkiv, where the billboards advertised the event as “National team of Ukraine vs. National team of Turkey.” The Ukrainian squad was made up of seven players from Kharkiv, but it was Kyiv-based striker Konstantin Shegodksiy whose hat trick made the difference as Ukraine emerged victorious, 3-2.
Kyiv was fast becoming a rising centre for sport, as demonstrated by the ambitious plans to build a 50,000 capacity National Sports Complex in the city. On June 21, 1941, the newspaper Proletarian Pravda reported:
“Tomorrow in Kiev there will be opened the biggest fitness structure in Ukraine, the Republican Stadium named after Nikita Khrushchev… The new stadium can serve 70,000 spectators simultaneously. Surrounded by 36 sectors of 50,000 seats, the lush green carpet of the oval football field of international sizes is visible… From the side towards the street of Henri Barbusse there rises a slender colonnade. That is the temporary entrance to the stadium… According to the decision of the government of the UkrSSR the Republican Stadium together with the existing Fitness Palace and a winter pool will be combined into a united sport complex, the centre of educational-sport training…”
The opening match was to take place between Dynamo Kyiv and CSKA Moscow on June 22. But as fate would have it, on that very day the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and Kyiv was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Great Patriotic War had begun. A banner was hung on the stadium with the rather optimistic inscription “Postponed until victory.”
Despite the war, many of the Dynamo players continued to play football during the occupation of Kyiv. FC Start, composed of eight players from Dynamo and three from Lokomotiv Kyiv, was formed in the spring of 1942, and won their inaugural match 7-2 over fellow Ukrainian side Rukh on June 7 of that year. Over the summer Start played several matches against teams made up of the occupying garrisons of the Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans, and won them all. On August 6 they defeated Flakelf, an elite team composed of players from the German air force. Flakelf challenged Start to a rematch, which took place three days later. The details of this encounter are murky and inconsistent. According to some reports, the Germans played dirty and constantly fouled the Start players, but the referee, an SS officer, ignored the appeals of the Ukrainians. Regardless, FC Start still ran out 5-3 winners.
In the aftermath of the match, many of the FC Start members were arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. This is where it becomes difficult to distinguish between myth and truth. The Soviet propaganda machine characterized the Start players as heroes who defiantly ignored German threats, winning the match despite knowing that it would cost them their lives. Dubbed the ‘Death Match,’ it became a popular and romanticized story in the Soviet Union and spawned two films. But the accuracy of this version of events is dubious. The prosecution office of the city Hamburg declared in 2005 that there was no evidence that the players were shot for winning the match.
Regardless of what really transpired, the match entered the Ukrainian national consciousness as symbolic of both brave resistance and footballing prowess. In the decades after the Second World War, Ukraine would assert itself as a football powerhouse on the European stage.
By Vadim Furmanov
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona