What makes a game timeless?
Throughout recorded history, playing games, and specifically athletics seem almost a religious experience. People gather and ritualize a theatrical exchange, directed and scripted only by systems of rules. There is no product at the end, no cure for a disease, no new technology. Humanity does not walk away with a philosophical revelation that passes to the next generation. The field is simply empty before we arrive, and it will return to emptiness again after we leave. Even the scores disappear. It’s only while we’re here that we play the game.
Perhaps because it doesn’t come with a script, but does come with a ticking clock, games can tell us more about our own humanity than the greatest Greek drama ever could.
In 1942 Ukraine, during the height of World War 2, some surviving members of Kyiv’s top football squads were recruited into a bakery ran by the German Nazis. The surviving members of these professional teams became known as FC Start. FC Start was compiled together by Iosef Kordik, a German speaking Ukrainian who also happened to be football’s greatest fan.
Years before, Josef Stalin had already devastated the country during the Holodomor, a man made famine that killed millions. As if life was not brutal enough under Stalin, Adolf Hitler arrived, masking his plans to dominate with a sly cloak: he was here to liberate. This liberation resulted in more Ukrainians killed than any other nationalities during the war, with estimates ranging between 12-15 million.
In desperate times, desperate men do desperate things.
What followed was a series of matches that pitted the bakers against the German Luftwaffe on a football pitch. Proving they could easily defeat the Nazis, the bakers were warned not to win again. The SS viewed the Ukrainians as “subhuman” and winning during such a volatie time of war would not be tolerated. Due to the evanescence of history and the darkness behind the iron curtain, countless legends have surrounded these events now commonly known as The Death Match.
What makes such a story so powerful? And why?
According to most accounts, the members of FC Start were faced with a tremendous decision:
To play means to win, to win means to die. These are the rules. The Nazis reminded them it was in their best interest to lose. To lose is to live.
But a life of misery was hardly a life at all. Ukraine was known as The Breadbasket of the Soviet Union, a land with enough grain to feed all of Europe. Forced to harvest their own grain to feed their enemies in a war against each other, the Ukrainians tragically continued to starve. There was only one place the bakers could truly live. There was only one place the bakers could truly win. There was only one place their nation could reclaim it’s voice.
The entire city arrived at the stadium to watch. Here was the game of life played out on the football field, and no stakes in the history of sports could ever be so high. The only trophy was loyalty and there would be no celebration if they won it, and no redemption if they lost it. To win was to sacrifice. To win was to give. To win was to pay the ultimate price.
The bakers found another way to feed a starving nation. A nation that had no voice, had nearly lost it’s soul was suddenly re-awakened. Awakened by a game. The players lost their lives to win a game, but they achieved immortality in the eyes of their people.
We play by the rules set forth in front of us. We have no script, but we do know what happens when the clock strikes zero.
The story of FC Start transcends the arena of athletics. Even in a game against death, we, as humans, still may win. While we’re here, we play. We move forward, we pay the price for these luminous moments upon the field, but that’s all it is.
It’s just a game.
Tyler Gooden is the writer and director of “Playing the Game”, an upcoming film inspired by the true story of FC Start. You can follow the progress of the movie: