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Russia exploits football as soft-power tool but it also helped forge Ukraine’s identity | Ukraine

Josef Kordik was sitting in a cafe in Kyiv when a bedraggled man on the street caught his eye. That, he was sure, was Myklova Trusevych, the great Dynamo goalkeeper. He rushed outside. It was spring 1942, a few months after the city had fallen to the Nazis.

Kordik was a Moravian who had been left behind after fighting for Austria-Hungary in the first world war. He had not enjoyed his new life and watching football had been his only joy, but the occupation had meant opportunity. He had falsely claimed Volksdeutsch status and been installed as manager of Bakery Number 1.

But for most people occupation had brought suffering. Trusevych had sent his wife, who was Jewish, to Odesa to escape the fighting. His home had been destroyed and he was sleeping rough. Kordik offered him work and accommodation at the bakery. Other stricken Dynamo players joined him. When regular football was established as a way of normalising the occupation, the bakery set up a team and proved themselves the best side in the city.

They played the Luftwaffe team and beat them 5-1. Three days later, on 9 August, they played them again, winning 5-3 in what became known as the Death Match. No game has ever been so shrouded in myth. In the years immediately after the war, it was in effect hushed up.

Should Kyivans really have been playing football with the occupiers? After all, one player was sentenced to five years in the gulag for collaboration while another had emigrated to Canada; by definition, they were not good Soviets. But by the Brezhnev era their victory was celebrated: brave Communists offering hope to the people of Kyiv by beating the Nazis.

Details accrued, from the plausible – an SS officer had warned them not to win – to the absurd – the players were shot at during the second half. The bare facts are tragic enough. Around 10 days after the game, the players were arrested, seemingly because, having played for Dynamo, the team of the interior ministry, they were technically members of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

One, Mykola Korotkykh, had briefly been an active officer and died under torture. The others were sent to a camp near Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv that was the site of a Nazi massacre of Jews in 1941. On 24 February 1943, in reprisal for bomb attacks marking the anniversary of the foundation of the Red Army, one in three prisoners were murdered. Oleksiy Klymenko and Ivan Kuzmenko, both of whom had scored against the Luftwaffe, were killed that morning, along with Trusevych.

It is a story that has particular resonance in the present context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but its significance is complex. The term sportswashing may have existed for half a dozen years and the modern practice of states or oligarchs taking control of clubs has taken it into a new phase, but football has had soft-power potential since it became a mass preoccupation in the late 19th century.

A Ukraine supporter at Wembley during the 2009 World Cup qualifier against England.
A Ukraine supporter at Wembley during the 2009 World Cup qualifier against England. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

That can be manipulated, but football is as much a theatre as it is a tool: its soft-power potential is not easily wielded. As the Death Match shows, events are open to multiple interpretations: what one generation feared as collaboration the next saw as heroism; when, in 1971, a memorial was erected to the four players who were killed, it was opposed by the KGB. New meanings are still being teased out of the legend: in Match, a 2012 film about the game directed by Andrey Malyukov, the heroes are Russian‑speaking Communists while those who work with the Nazis speak Ukrainian.

Football, hostage as it may now be to finance, has a mischievous tendency to confound the best-laid plans: Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, for all their investment, have still not won the Champions League, while Chelsea won it for the first time with an interim manager and probably the worst squad they have had since Roman Abramovich’s arrival.

It is 17 years since CSKA Moscow, the former army club, became the first Russian side to win a European trophy. At the time, it was still partly owned by the Russian Ministry of Defence and was sponsored by Sibneft, a corporation owned by Abramovich, although he was bought out by Gazprom a few months later. The Ministry of Defence sold its remaining 25% stake to Bluecastle Enterprises, a company registered in London. The remaining 75% is held by the state development corporation VEB.RF whose chairman, Igor Shuvalov, was sanctioned by the UK on Thursday. Bluecastle, run by CSKA’s president, Evgeny Giner, continues to operate freely.

Three years after CSKA’s success, Zenit St Petersburg, who have been owned by Gazprom since December 2005, won the Uefa Cup. Russian football seemed on the verge of an era of great success, but the league is now ranked 10th in Europe, behind Scotland.

There was perhaps a natural ceiling to Russia’s challenge to the big four or five leagues and limits on foreign players have raised domestic salaries more than quality, but interest has waned since the World Cup and sanctions imposed after the invasion of Crimea in 2014 have had an impact, with Giner’s energy business particularly badly hit.

Then there are the indirect consequences of involvement in football. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi takeovers of Manchester City and Newcastle have led to far greater scrutiny in Britain of those countries’ human rights records than would otherwise have been the case. Such investment is seemingly still regarded as a net positive, but there have been costs. Who would have considered the rights of migrant labourers in Qatar before it bid to host a World Cup?

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The irony of this is that for all Russia’s efforts, most particularly by hosting the World Cup and the Winter Olympics, to use sport as a propaganda tool, it is sport that, before the war, provided probably the most visible examples of Ukraine’s existence. Until Volodymyr Zelenskiy emerged as a hero of resistance, the most famous Ukrainians to the rest of the world were sportsmen, Vitali Klitschko and Andriy Shevchenko. Anybody who followed the Champions League knew Shakhtar and Dynamo.

The same soft power Russia tried to exploit also gave Ukraine an identity. In the information war, that is no small matter.

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