Soviet Football - The Untold Story (2017)

‘Soviet Football – The Untold Story’ (2017) in an hour

Soviet Football – The Untold Story came out just before the 2018 World Cup was held in Russia. This great little documentary needs to be required viewing for every soccer pundit, professional or amateur. French Writer-Director Nicolas Jallot provides everything you need to know about Soviet football (советского футбола) history in under an hour.

The documentary adds so much more in footage, photos and interviews, that my article only serves to recall key points.

Soviet football began with Stalin

Football first arrived with British seamen in the port cities of the Soviet Union: St Petersburg,  Odessa, and Poti (the cradle of Georgian football). Georgia is wine country and has weather suitable for year-round soccer, so the sport was more popular there than in Russia. Josef Stalin and his henchman Lavrentiy Beria (Лавре́нтий Бе́рия) were from Georgia, and after Stalin came to power, he and Beria brought football to Moscow.

Historian Sylvain Dufraisse says that the communists who oversaw state fitness movements saw football as orthopathy (the treatment of illness or disease without the use of drugs), and they sought to elevate sport as a means of fighting society’s ills: alcoholism, sexual addiction, and violence. Sport was also a good delivery system for propaganda, where players were either useful heroic tools or sent to the gulag.

Beria, the future head of the Soviet secret police (NKVD), founded Dinamo Tbilisi. Supposedly during a game’s halftime, Beria went into the locker room and told the players:

“Boys, it’s simple: if you don’t win this match, I’m sending you all to jail!”

Lavrentiy Beria

The teams in Russia represented different government entities:

  • CSKA was the army
  • Dynamo was the KGB
  • Torpedo was the factories
  • Lokomotiv was the railways
  • Spartak was the people, a civilian team named after Spartacus by the four Starostin (Ста́ростин) brothers

In the 1920s and 30s, all the Dynamo players were officers of the NKVD (the future KGB), which was how they were paid. They would play during the day and torture people at night.

The propagandistic legend of the Death Match

On Jun 22, 1941, Hitler advanced into the Soviet Union. The Death Match (Матч смерти) was a football match that took place on Aug 9, 1942 in Kiev between a Soviet team, FC Start, and a team of German occupiers. A war reporter in 1943 made up a story that became legend: the players were shot because they would not let the German team win.

Ukrainian journalist Valentyn Sherbachev (Валентин Щербачев) wrote a book reporting the truth of the Death Match, based on his interviews of the surviving players and others. It was just a regular match refereed by a German. Some players were shot later on, but it was because former Dynamo Kiev players were found by the Germans to have been NKVD members, it was not because of any football game.

I realize that sounds pretty callous, to speak so lightly of people executed with little thought. A downside of watching documentaries like this and narratives like The Death of Stalin is that we get inured to the efficient brutality of Russia. We need to remember that this Soviet disregard for human life continues to this day with Vladimir Putin, as well as the propagandizing of sports.

In conclusion

I had watched this film on Amazon Prime back in 2018, but it was so chock full of information, I meant to go back and watch it again so that I could take notes. However, there were so many football movies in that time period, and WC 2018 was so good, I sort of forgot about this documentary until this week, when I decided to clean out my Amazon Prime watchlist. My apologies for my sloth! This film should not be overlooked.

9 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 9