As much as we Americans don't like to admit it, no sport is as capable of unifying cultures and nations like soccer (football, to the rest of the world). Likewise, no sport is as capable of dividing nations and cultures like soccer. The sport's divergent beautiful and ugly natures have both been on display this past month as Poland and the Ukraine have co-hosted the Euro Cup 2012 (like the World Cup, but decidedly Eurocentric) tournament.
But few soccer stories prove so transcendant as the legendary 1942 game known as "The Death Match," between a handful of Dynamo Kiev players from the Ukraine, and a select team of Germans formed to prove the Aryan superiority of Hitler's "master race." The tense match, in which much more than soccer and athletics were being played out, was held in the stadium of Dynamo Kiev, the same (Ukrainian) club whose stadium is hosting this year's Euro 2012 Final (between Italy and defending champions Spain).
Like many soccer fans on this side of the pond, I first heard of this remarkable event from the poetic Uruguayan writer (and wannabe soccer star) Eduardo Galeano. In his ode to all things soccer, Soccer In Sun And Shadow, Galeano succinctly depicts "The Death Match" in this manner:
"A monument in the Ukraine commemorates the players of the 1942 Dynamo Kiev team. During the German occupation they commited the insane act of defeating Hitler's squad in the local stadium. Having been warned, "If you win, you die," they started out resigned to losing, trembling with fear and hunger, but in the end they could not resist the temptation of dignity. When the game was over all eleven were shot with their shirts on at the edge of a cliff."
(As a side note, "the temptation of dignity" is one of the most impressive phrases I've ever read.)
ESPN's Outside the Lines did a longer bit on it just this past week.
The championship game this year is likely to include its share ugliness, from players flopping, to obnoxious fans chanting dispicable "cheers." But through the years, soccer has shown an ability to be played on a stage far larger than the field ecompassing its players. And in those moments, it should be celebrated as the "beautiful game" that it is.