Ukraine might be the least known team still in the tournament, but there is one story about Ukraninan football that everyone should know: that of the Death Match of 1942, commemorated in the statue outside Dynao Kiev's stadium, shown on the left.
In 1941, a number of football players for Dynamo and Lokomotiv Kiev ended up trapped in the city when the invading Germans arrived. Many of these players - whose lives were in danger from the SS because of their membership in the Communist Party (purely nominal in most cases: party membership was required of all top-flight football players in the 1930s) - ended up working for a fanatical football fan, Iosif Kordik, who ran a bakery in Kiev. When the Germans decided to allow a resummption of football league play in 1942, Kordik formed a team called "Start", made up mostly of players who worked at his bakery.
Start quickly became the best team in the league, beating the nationalst (and Nazi-sponsored) "Rukh" team that were their only real competition. Within a month, Start had defeated teams from local German and Hungarian garrisons and were becoming a symbol of popular resistance to the Nazis. When the Germans put up their best team, Flakelf (as the name suggests, an eleven from an anti-aircraft unit), Start won 5-1, despite a crooked Romanian ref and an attempt by Flakelf to kick Start off the park.
Stung, the German authorities arranged a re-match on Sunday, 9 August 1942. The Flakelf team was boosted by the sudden arrival of a number of German international players. The Romanian ref was replaced by a German one. SS guards with Alsatians were brought into the stadium to "maintain order". At kick-off, the teams were instructed to "greet one another appropriately" (i.e. with the raised-arm Nazi salute). Despite these conditions - and a brtual tenth-minute attack on the keeper (and Captain) Trusevich that left him briefly unconscious - Start left the field for the half-time break to rapturous applause, up 3-1.
During the 15-minute break, the Start players received a visit from an SS officer. Courteously, the officer congratulated them on how well they had played in the first half, but explained menacingly that they could not possibly expect to win, and should consider the consequences before returning to the field. The threat could not have been clearer.
The team decided not to buckle. Not only did they win the game 5-3, they did so with bravado. One player, Klimenko, even decided to inflict some extra humiliation on the Germans. After deking the keeper, he stood with the ball on the Flakelf goalline and, instead of scoring, booted the ball back upfield. The crowd - including, significantly, some members of the Hungarian garrison - applauded wildly.
Ten days later, the Gestapo arrived to shut down the bakery. Ten players were arrested, allegeldy for stealing. Several were tortured - one died in Gestapo custody in Kiev. The rest were taken to the Siretz death camp near Babi Yar. Six months later, three of them, inlcuding Klimenko and Trusevich, were shot in reprisal for a partisan attack on an German vehicle-repair depot. Unlike most of his teammates, Trusevich actually was a communist and he allegedly died while yelling "Red Sport will never die".
Football, as Gramsci would have said, is about solidarity. To quote Arsene Wenger, the act of playing for the team makes every individual stronger. No country's football tradition peronsifies this better than the Ukraine's. Italy will underestimate them today at their own peril.