Euro 2022: Ukrainian referee Maryna Striletska hopes to forget war

Euro 2022: Ukrainian referee Maryna Striletska hopes to forget war

Euro 2022: Ukrainian referee Maryna Striletska hopes to forget war

Referee Maryna Striletska in action during the FIFA World Cup qualifying round between Romania and Liechtenstein,
Maryna Striletska has led the Swiss men’s third tier to prepare for this summer’s European Championship

Maryna Striletska’s life was turned upside down one February morning when she awoke to see her dogs barking and her husband howling in front of the television.

“I will never forget the moment,” she told BBC Sport. “He sat with tears in his eyes watching the news and said ‘the war has begun’.”

One of Ukraine’s top assistant referees, Striletska had made history just four months earlier as part of the first all-female team to oversee an England men’s international.

But that World Cup qualifier between Gareth Southgate’s side and minnows Andorra at the Estadi Nacional felt like a world away as army vehicles rolled through her village, 30 miles from the Russian border.

“In the first day, for 24 hours, trucks and military cars came through,” she recalls. “The Russian army was friendly and asked us which way to go to Kiev.

“They thought we needed help, brought flowers and bread, but after a week they realized we didn’t want this help. Then they got mad and started shooting at civilian cars and I thought maybe I want to leave. “

In the end, Striletska did just that: Packing her things into just one bag, she set off on a grueling flight to safety in Switzerland.

Since then, the 38-year-old has picked up her flag again as an assistant referee in the Swiss men’s third division. She will arrive in England next month to lead the Women’s European Championship.

The refereeing family has thrown a lifeline to the Ukrainian pioneer. But speaking on Zoom from the sofa bed she now shares with her daughter Eva in Basel, she says her outlook on life has changed forever.

‘The refereeing world is like one big family’

Raised in Luhansk, Striletska was more interested in athletics than football as a teenager, but she combined the two in college and continued playing for six years after graduation.

“I ran like crazy because I was in athletics,” she says. “I wasn’t very good with the ball, but I like to run!”

The former midfielder was persuaded to repurpose her athletic prowess in 2006 when the Football Federation of Ukraine attempted to recruit female referees in each of the country’s 24 regions.

“At that time, we had maybe ten girls in Ukraine who were refereeing, so each federation decided to look for one girl,” she says. “They asked me and at the time I wasn’t too happy, but I tried.”

Today, Striletska is one of the most prominent Ukrainian female officials, including Kateryna Monzul, the first woman to referee in the country’s men’s Premier League.

Striletska has assisted Monzul in the Women’s World Cup, the Olympic Games, the European Championship and the Champions League, as well as the Men’s Europa League, Nations League and European Under-21 Qualifiers.

Assistant Svitlana Grushko, Referee Kateryna Monzul and Assistant Maryna Striletska warm up ahead of the Andorra v England game
Maryna Striletska (right) alongside Kateryna Monzul (center) and Svitlana Grushko before England’s World Cup qualifier with Andorra
Kieran Trippier of England talks to assistant referee Maryna Striletska during the Andorra v England match in October 2021
Maryna Striletska was part of the first all-female refereeing team to oversee an England men’s international

“It’s our team, Kateryna, me and Oleksandra [Ardasheva] or Svitlana [Grushko]’, she says. “This is a small team, a small family. It’s really like sisters.

“But now, since the war started, I see the umpiring world is like one big family and I feel like I’m a part of that; people want to help.”

‘I cried every day for three weeks’

It was mid-March when Striletska finally decided to follow her sister’s advice in Switzerland and flee war-torn Ukraine.

The home life she had known – working weekends as an assistant or video assistant referee in the Ukrainian men’s Premier League and coaching two girls’ teams in the evenings – was already over.

But the constant fear of bombing from low-flying planes as they roared over her home, and 11-year-old Eva’s safety concerns, began to take their toll.

So Striletska put her daughter, a friend’s wife, and their two children in a car and set off for Poland, where she spent hours behind the wheel to avoid the nightly curfew.

“It was difficult because all the road signs were removed,” she says. “We had to hide in a village during the journey while waiting for tanks to pass.

“We went to a church once and slept on the floor, I had driven for 18 hours and just wanted to sleep. At 6 o’clock we would start again.

“It took me four days. After we got to the border, we queued for 17 hours, but after that it was easy – I felt we were safe.”

Striletska could only hope that her husband and fellow football coach, Sergiy, would be safe, as he had to stay behind.

“He will defend our home because it’s a second time for us,” she says. “We used to live in Donbas and in 2014 we lost everything and I never saw my parents again before they died.”

Reunited with her sister in Switzerland, Striletska initially struggled to think about anything other than her husband and the war, but football has given her an outlet.

“I cried every day for three weeks,” she says. “I forgot I was in the football world because I was thinking about the war. That’s why I had to referee.”

Maryna Striletska in Lucerne
Maryna Striletska says she is grateful for all the help she has received since arriving in Switzerland

Striletska says the Football Federation of Ukraine, after offering to help all its referees, has contacted their Swiss counterparts on its behalf; they gave her matches in the men’s third division Swiss Promotion League.

“I’m so grateful for this because the Swiss federation has given me a lot of games,” she says. “It helps, because I can forget the war for at least two hours and see only defenders, attackers, offside!”

‘Enjoy the moment’

Now that her daughter has settled in school, Striletska spends her days following her Fifa fitness program and learning German.

“Switzerland does a lot for the Ukrainians, all museums, trains and buses are free for us,” she says. “I really can’t thank this country enough, they even organized a free language course for us.”

Despite her gratitude, Striletska is desperate for a speedy return to her homeland. For now, however, she keeps in touch via the internet.

“Now that our region is more or less normal, the Russians have gone to Donbas and the east,” she says. “Sometimes my husband says they hear explosions, but not like they used to. Even our gym starts working and I do online training with the girls.”

Another morale boost is the call for a second Women’s European Championship alongside Monzul, who also left Ukraine and has since refereed Italy’s Women’s Serie A.

“I was very happy with the news about the European Championship,” says Striletska. “It’s an incredible feeling, I can forget the war and I look forward to working together again.”

The two were last in the UK in November for Arsenal’s Women’s Champions League tie with Danish side HB Koge at Borehamwood, then England’s Women’s World Cup qualifier with Austria at the Stadium of Light.

Striletska’s life has changed beyond recognition since then, and so have her values.

“After this I realize that you don’t need much in life,” she explains. “Money is not important, the most important are the relationships between people.

“People help me, talk to me, bring fruit for my daughter, small but useful things, and these are the things that are important in our lives.

“We’re always trying to reach higher, work harder, buy things, but really, you just have to enjoy the moment.”