But Ukrainian authorities yesterday suspended the release of a film depicting that Soviet defiance of Nazi Germany because of concerns it could ignite explosive emotions just weeks before Ukraine co-hosts the 2012 European Championship.
Officials fear that The Match, which extols the heroism of Ukrainian players but portrays many Kiev residents as Nazi collaborators, would teach Ukrainian audiences the wrong image of their country and history.
Some experts also fear that it may stoke hostility toward German players and fans as Ukraine hosts several games played by Germany’s national team.
The film tells the story of the match on 9 August, 1942, which pitted a Wehrmacht team against players from Kiev’s top club Dynamo and other athletes. The Ukrainian team won 5-3 despite reported warnings from the SS that they must lose to their occupiers. Most team members were soon arrested.
“Some things are worth dying for,” the actor playing team captain Nikolai Ranevich says in the film, his eyes filling with tears, as he convinces his team to beat the Nazis in a show of resistance and patriotism.
A Soviet journalist dubbed the game the “Death Match” and Soviet authorities cultivated the legend that the entire team was executed by the Nazis soon afterwards. A monument to those players now stands outside the Dynamo stadium.
Historians now say that while defeating the Nazi team was undoubtedly courageous, there is no evidence that all the players were executed in revenge.
Nine of the players were arrested about a week after the match. One soon died in custody and three others were shot in a Kiev concentration camp six months later, according to Volo-dymyr Prystaiko, who wrote a book on the match.
German investigators concluded in 2005 there was no evidence linking the death of the three players to the match.
The film’s distributor wanted The Match to premiere in Ukraine on 3 May and the state cinema agency was to announce its decision on whether to approve the film last week. But agency spokeswoman Larisa Titarenko said yesterday the regulator will take another 25 working days to analyse it.
Yaroslav Pidhora-Gvyazdov-skiy, a member of the expert commission reviewing The Match, says he recommended banning it, because it promotes ethnic strife. Most of the characters who collaborate with the Nazis speak Ukrainian, while the admirable characters speak Russian and fearlessly oppose the invaders, he said.
Independent film critic Volodymyr Voitenko also feels The Match should be banned.
He said: “It’s ideological propaganda, which is part of Russia’s neo-imperialist policy. It’s a political question and the state must decide whether to allow being spat in the face or not.”
Producer Dmitry Kulikov accused Ukrainian officials of bowing to pressure from “radical nationalist groups.”
“There is nothing anti-Ukrainian about this movie,” Mr Kulikov said from Moscow. “We made a film about the heroic deed of Ukrainians and Kiev residents during the war.”
Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said the film could incite aggressive fans during the Euro 2012 tournament.
“There always are people – hooligans – who use football to spill out their aggression and some of those people may be influenced by it,” he said.