Playing The Game: FC Start and Ukraine’s Forgotten Football History

The eyes of the world are focused on Eastern Europe this summer as Ukraine and Poland co-host football’s European Championships. The tournament so far has been a vibrant affair on the pitch, with goalless draws an unusual and the likes of Portugal, Germany, Italy and of course reigning champions Spain having provided plenty of attacking flair.

Off the pitch is has not all been so rosy, with some incidents of racist abuse from the stands and violent clashes between Russians and Poles ahead of their nations’ Group A clash in the tournament’s opening weeks. Those skirmishes in Warsaw were a modern addendum to historical battles; the reopening of old wounds. History’s hand weighs heavily on the shoulders of this region; it is a relatively short time since Ukrainian and Polish independence from the old Soviet Union, and deep scars run over an even longer timeline than that.

World War II is long gone but not forgotten, certainly not in this part of the world. Many of the squads at the competition quite rightly paid sombre visits to Auschwitz in Poland, but co-host country Ukraine suffered too – it’s often overlooked, but one story from those days has been passed down and remains known to this day, even by those so young that the war itself is a dim and distant fact, like a photograph of long-forgotten ancestors, captured in a moment of time that is forever inaccessible. It’s a story of a team known as FC Start. It’s a story of a game that came to be called The Death Match. It’s a story of football. But it’s about so much more than football.

We have covered The Death Match on this site before, and the point here is not to re-tell the story again. The point of this piece is to spotlight a man who has dedicated years of his life to keeping the inspiring story alive, with a dream to tell it to the world. That man is filmmaker Tyler Gooden, the dream is a film called Playing The Game. I contacted Tyler to see if he would be interested in a question and answer session to talk about the story of The Death Match, his film, what it means to him and what it could mean to so many others.

Firstly, for those who might not know, can you briefly explain the story of FC Start and what became known as The Death Match, and how you first came to be aware of it?

The Death Match is a term given to a series of soccer matches that occurred during the middle of World War 2, between the invading German Luftwaffe and surviving Ukrainian footballers. According to most accounts, after the Ukrainians won in front of everyone, the humiliated Germans told these “subhuman Ukrainians” to lose the next game or they’d taken off to the concentration camps to die. That’s the short of it, without revealing too much of my story.

I lived in Central and Eastern Europe for almost a decade, and I discovered the story while travelling around. I later went to do more research, which included translating old news articles, speaking with Ukrainians, and absorbing as much as I could about that particular time in history.


Did you know early on after learning of the story that you wanted to make it into a movie, or is it something that came to fruition slowly?

I actually already had the idea in my head to make something with sports as a central metaphor long before I heard of FC Start. By that, I mean, I want to look at games in allegorical terms.

This is the game of life, and The FC Start story just so happens to fit in so perfectly with an idea I already wanted to explore long ago when I was still in art school.

I then started working on Hollywood studio films in Eastern Europe, which gives me a bit of leverage as a filmmaker for this subject, but somehow cut me off from the people who could actually get it made. This was nine years ago, and the project’s been down many roads since then. Only this year have I been in the position to dedicate full time to it, thanks to the support of a growing community. Now, I’m full steam, and expecting to deliver something for an audience this year, with more to follow.


Why do you think the story stayed with you for such a long time?

I think, on a personal level, it’s stayed with me because of the challenge and desire to tell it. It’s undoubtedly an incredible story on its own, but I want to tap deeply into the heart of what makes it tick, and that’s no easy task. It’s also difficult to make logistically and financially. But I have become such a better filmmaker over the years because of this story.

I’ve also had a few important people in my life that got genuinely excited when I expressed my vision for it. It’s like serotonin for an artist, to watch a friend completely stop what they are doing to listen, and then stay captivated for an hour and a half as I tell them the story. That kind of response keeps my head in the game, so to speak.


What is it about the story that you feel lends itself to being a movie, and are you surprised that this story has not been brought to the screen in a realistic way before?

It’s such a iconic story, it would be very easy to just go out and make a movie with a bunch of POW soccer players kicking around a ball. Put in some Nazis, some World War 2 shots of buildings exploding, and a few dramatic one-liners, and just drop in a conclusion, and maybe you’d have a movie.

But, I think as a drama, it’s actually a very difficult one to tell cinematically, and many have tried. This is a period piece, set in the Soviet Union, with a lot of characters. It’s also tough because what makes this story so powerful is singularly the decision these men make in the face of death. Anything else doesn’t do the story justice and trivializes its power. But if you include the most powerful aspects, you run the danger of giving the Nazis the final victory, sentimentalizing it, or ending on a bleak note.

So you need to have dramatic conflict that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as you build tension towards the final decision, but keep an ending that still expresses fully the heart of what their decision truly means.

If it becomes about just football, or just about the final game, then that is spectacle, and not cinema I am interested in. Movies these days leap out at you in order to grab your attention. I would rather pull the audience in so deeply that they forget everything else.


The FC Start story is the story of a football match, but it’s also about so much more – loyalty, bravery, patriotism and sacrifice – did these weighty themes make the screenplay harder, or easier, to write?

At first, it just made the screenplay longer. Such rich themes make the story more potent, but that also makes it easy to sentimentalize or gives the writer crutches to walk you to the end.

Instead, I spent a tremendous amount of time examining these themes before I ever even got to the football aspect. It isn’t easy, but once I finally got the story structure right, those themes fell right into their place. Hopefully, it’s in a fresh way that will surprise the audience but still respect the integrity of the events.


Of the many themes the story deals with, is there one in particular you picked out as the central and most important theme of your movie?

I didn’t really pick one out, but I did find a way to marry several ideas. The counterpoints of life as game, a game against death, duplicity, reclaiming a stolen voice, and football as a weapon for the weaponless are just some ideas that skim the surface.

At its deeper levels, the story becomes about betrayal and loyalty. What is pure loyalty in its most unadulterated form? What exactly makes a sacrifice a true sacrifice? How do you depict that dramatically in the most impactful way possible?

And, most importantly, what does it mean to win the game of life? Because, essentially, what we are talking about here is a game against death.

All of these questions are answered in my story, but not in the way you might expect.


Given that your film is based on true events, did you find it difficult to balance the need to be historically accurate in your storytelling with the need to have a film that is dramatically satisfying? Do you feel you have been able to find the right balance between truth and drama?

I did a lot of research and studied relentlessly about what actually happened. But then I closed the books, and took those events and started structuring the story around what do those events mean? Why is it significant? Why do we care about this story?

We don’t remember what happens as much as we remember what it means. My job as an artist is to illuminate significance, so I take history’s version of the events and find a way to reveal why they are important. The Ancient Greeks were wise to be afraid of drama and theatrics because it is a far more powerful method of revealing the truth than describing it on a historical timeline. You just have to be sure that telling “the truth” is what you are doing.


Without giving too much away, is there a particular message you are looking to impart with this movie, or would having a simple moral be too simplistic?

I think, if I am successful, the audience will walk away with an emotional experience that is also a very entertaining, well told story. It’s not a fable with a moral, but the central idea is that even in the most bleak circumstances, life as a game can be won on all fronts if you take control and shape your own destiny. Even if you know how the game ends, you choose your path, and if you give back, to a higher purpose, then you live on. And if you serve as a hero in the minds of the people, well, then, you elevate into the song they still sing generations later.


Let’s talk a little about your project itself. Though you’ve been involved in the making of many films before, I believe this is the first project you have helmed yourself. What have you found most difficult about this project, and what has been the easiest part of it (so far)?

I wouldn’t say any part of it has been easy, but I do enjoy creating a world, whether that be through drawing, writing, or directing. I’ve always felt completely at home inside my own imagination, so I enjoy telling stories.

As for the challenges, there’s still a tremendous amount of work to do. Because I am making a short animation to introduce the story and help launch the feature, I must design a workflow that’s very specific to what I am capable of achieving on my own. This means I am my own line producer, as well as animator, editor, storyboard artist, and a whole host of other responsibilities. I spend half the day rotoscoping frame by frame animation tests, then the other half sorting through my expenses, accounts, calendar, and logistics. I would rather just focus on the creative aspects, but my resources must grow first.


Personally I think the story of FC Start and The Death Match is one of those tales that seems to bring people together. For example, we’re two people from different continents who have never met, yet we have come into contact because of our shared interest in the story and what it means. Have you found that support for the project has been easy to come by because of the power and reach of the story you are looking to give life to?

Absolutely. The reach is expansive, and I expect it to grow. Right now, it’s quality people who are involved, but passionate people from around the world. Many people I haven’t met personally are among the most important people, such as one of my producers from Canada who is Ukrainian by heritage, and another from Turkey. You and I connected a couple months back, although I had already read your previous article on the subject. We’re all in on this together because we believe in the power of the story.


Has it been important for you to involve Ukrainians in any way you can?

Very important. It’s always an enormous honor when someone from Ukraine shows support, and I have been working hard to reach out to Ukrainians. This isn’t just another sports story, it’s very much about the restoration and healing of national identity by recognizing what kinds of extraordinary people came out of such extraordinary times. One key aspect of the project is to shine a light on such things as Holodomor and the country taken hostage by both Stalin and Hitler, two of the most murderous dictators in human history. And these people were trapped between them.

The western world just seems to ignore that in cinema and history, but for my story, it is a pivotal aspect. So, anytime I meet a Ukrainian of that generation, or hear a story of how a grandparent survived those times, I have a new source of motivation and humility.


Is there any way we can keep up with the project and become a part of the journey?

Yes, you, the audience are the most important part of this project. By liking our facebook page, you not only get the chance to keep up with what I am doing and watch the movie get made, you also help cheer it forward and keep an eye out for artwork giveaways, new exciting developments, and, ultimately, the finished piece.

Nothing is more motivating than to know others are inspired. Your support will complete this movie, so please join us, share what I am doing, and become a part of this experience!

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 With thanks to Tyler Gooden. All artwork copyright Tyler Gooden 2012

2 thoughts on “Playing The Game: FC Start and Ukraine’s Forgotten Football History

  1. Really good interview Dave, I remember your piece on FC Start, it was brilliantly written. Like Veronika I will be looking forward to this.

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