’We were, of course not in the best of form. But once you hear the ball sing your heart starts to jump. It is football after all.’ Konstantin Belikov
For two hundred days the gruesome fight for Stalingrad raged at the cost of two million lives. No mercy on either side, a battle of annihilation, last man standing. Finally the Russian flag was raised over what remained of a once great city now reduced to charred rubble, caked with dust and dirt and soaked in blood. To commemorate Stalingrad’s liberation on February 2 1943 the Soviet high command came up with the idea of a football match. What better way to try and grasp a semblance of normality after the carnage of the last seven months than enjoying once more the sight of twenty two men kicking a ball around. To take on the great Spartak Moscow whom would be flown in from the capital were a side born amidst this place that God had tragically forsaken… Traktor Stalingrad.
Formed in 1929 by workers of the city’s Dzerzhinskiy tractor factory, early success in regional competitions led to entry into the National league only eights years on. So it was Traktor found themselves in Donetsk preparing for a game on June 22 1941. A date now etched into infamy as when operation ‘Barbarossa’ was launched and Adolf Hitler unleashed hell on earth upon the Soviet Union. In returning to Stalingrad the players were informed that as vital workers at the Dzerhinskiy factory they were to be evacuated beyond the Urals Mountains, out of Nazi reach. But problems arose when the players of Traktor Stalingrad refused to go. In a vote they neglected the notion of being shipped to Siberia, instead demanding they be allowed to defend their city.
In the end with the players insistent, a deal was reached with the authorities. To keep face four would still go whilst seven would be allowed to stay and fight. Belikov, Ermasov, Gusev, Kolosov, Plonskaya, Sheremet and Shlyapin. All fought and by a miracle considering the slaughter on both sides survived. One in particular, twenty-three years old Konstantin Belikov became a hero of the Motherland. Whilst operating in an advanced Special Forces unit Belikov made over thirty combat missions and once single-handedly held out for an hour against overwhelming German forces before help arrived.
The historic match between Spartak Moscow and the newly named ‘Dinamo’ Stalingrad would take place at the only sporting venue to have survived amidst the smouldering rubble. The Azot stadium. Rumours that Josef Stalin himself would attend spread like wildfire amongst the troops, although they later proved false. Across this vast war ravaged country word reached that Stalingrad was to host a grand football occasion the likes never before witnessed. For the Soviets the political and propaganda advantages were enormous. There was a whiff of victory in the air. Stalingrad was the German’s last stand on Russian soil. Now they stood on the verge of being routed and chased back to Berlin.
And ultimate defeat.
Traktor’s preparation for the game centred on searching through the ruins looking for decent kit. Most importantly football boots. Health-wise they had a fortnight to find a modicum of fitness enabling them to give their Moscow comrades a decent contest. For Traktor would be up against opponents whom had spent the war far away from the front line whilst training and performing in propaganda matches. In every essence it should really have been no contest.
On May 2 1943, under heavy secrecy and escorted on either wing by fighter planes the aircraft carrying Spartak Moscow came to Stalingrad. Their arrival delayed by heavy German air raids was met with huge relief by the local Soviet military whom dreaded Spartak being shot down and having to inform Stalin his team had been blown out of the sky. On board the Spartak players gazed in awful silence at the still smouldering remnants down below. Goalkeeper Alexei Leontiev recalled ‘A stretched black scorched earth where beautiful buildings once stood. Now just a city of ruins.’ Taken to a bombed out school where they were allowed to rest for several hours beforehand the Spartak Moscow party could only stare open-mouthed at the devastation which had befell Stalingrad. When time to leave for the stadium they were escorted to the southern suburbs of Beketonskaya in open-top cars.
Waiting for them at the Azot stadium were 10,000 Russian soldiers and eleven footballers whom having lived through hell now prepared to resume a career where a ball and not a gun was their most precious possession. Traktor ‘Dinamo’ Stalingrad. Before kick off the Traktor players were awarded medals for their role in defence of the city. Then suddenly a thunderous roar from the clouds that at first caused fears of a German bombing raid only for a Soviet fighter plane to swoop low and drop the match ball onto the pitch and tip its wings in a victory salute before departing. It was an astonishing scene that electrified all present as for a while all that mattered once more in this war of annihilation was football.
The actual contest was won on thirty nine minutes when Traktor’s Moiseyev scored the games only goal. Laid on a plate by who else but celebrated war hero Konstantin Belikov, whose every touch was cheered twice as loud by the crowd. The second half saw Spartak lay siege to the Traktor goal which at times led a charmed life. With the home side tiring badly only good luck and last gasp defending enabled them to snatch a memorable victory over the illustrious Moscovites. The final whistle saw great scenes as both teams embraced and gathered in the centre-circle to receive a standing ovation.
Before returning to Moscow the Spartak team was invited along with the Traktor players that same evening to attend an open-air music concert put on in their honour. As rowdy songs were sung, copious amounts of vodka downed and a thousand toasts raised in the early summer air the joyful mood was rudely shattered by the sudden thud of anti-aircraft guns letting fly at a large formation of Luftwaffe bombers looking to wreak a last revenge on a city that broke their hearts, backbone and spirit.
A reminder to all present that despite what had been a brief respite from the slaughter there still existed an enemy they had sworn to destroy. The battle for Stalingrad may have been won but the war was far from over. The final whistle had not yet blown
On September 26 1995, Manchester United played host to a little known Russian side called Rotor Volgograd in the UEFA cup. After the first leg ended 0-0 United were huge favourites to go through. However showing no fear with just twenty minutes gone the Russians deservedly led 2-0. A marvellous game of football ensued with the home side finally clawing the score back to 2-2 before being eliminated on goal difference. The game now famous for Peter Schmeichel’s last minute header whilst up for a corner. Keeping intact Manchester United’s proud unbeaten European home record.
After the game Mancunians were shocked at the skill and huge courage shown by these mysterious visitors from along the banks of the Volga. They shouldn’t have been for the team that played that evening under the Old Trafford floodlights were in another time, another place,
The pride of the Motherland