Maryna Striletska’s life was turned upside down one February morning when she woke up to find her dogs barking and her husband crying in front of the television.
“I will never forget the moment,” he tells BBC Sport. “He was watching the news with tears in his eyes and said ‘the war has started’.”
Striletska, one of Ukraine’s top assistant referees, had made history just four months earlier as part of the first women’s team to oversee an England men’s international match.
But that World Cup qualifier between Gareth Southgate’s side and Andorra’s minnows at the Estadi Nacional felt like a world away as army vehicles drove through his village, 30 kilometers from the border with Russia.
“The first day, for 24 hours, military trucks and cars passed by,” he recalls. “The Russian army was friendly and asked us how to get to Kyiv.
“They thought we needed help, they brought flowers and bread, but after a week they realized we didn’t want this help. After that, they started getting angry and started shooting at civilian cars and I thought maybe I wanted to leave.”
Eventually, Striletska did just that, packing her belongings into a single bag and setting off on an arduous run to safety in Switzerland.
Since then, the 38-year-old has taken up her flag again as an assistant referee in the Swiss men’s third division. Next month she will arrive in England to referee the Women’s Euro Cup.
The referee family has given the Ukrainian trailblazer a lifeline. But speaking on Zoom from the bedroom he now shares with his daughter Eva in Basel, he says his perspective on life has changed forever.
‘The referee’s world is like a big family’
Raised in Lugansk, Striletska was more interested in athletics than soccer as a teenager, but she combined the two in college and played for six years after graduation.
“I ran like a crazy horse because I was doing track,” she says. “I wasn’t that good with the ball, but I like to run!”
The former midfielder was convinced to put her athleticism to new use in 2006, when the Ukrainian FA sought to recruit referees in each of the country’s 24 regions.
“At the time, we had about 10 girls in Ukraine refereeing, so each federation decided to find a girl,” he says. “They asked me and at the time I wasn’t that happy, but I tried.”
Today, Striletska is one of a number of top-ranking Ukrainian officials, including the first woman to officiate in the country’s men’s Premier League, Kateryna Monzul.
Striletska has assisted Monzul at the Women’s World Cup, Olympic Games, European Championship and Champions League, as well as in the Men’s Europa League, Nations League and European Under-21 qualifiers.
“We are our team, Kateryna, Oleksandra and I [Ardasheva] or Svitlana [Grushko]he says. “This is a small team, a small family. It’s really like sisters.
“But now, since the war started, I see that the refereeing world is like a big family and I feel that I am part of it, people want to help.”
“For three weeks I cried every day”
It was mid-March that Striletska finally decided to follow her sister’s advice in Switzerland and flee war-torn Ukraine.
The home life he had known, weekends working as an assistant or video assistant referee in the Ukrainian men’s Premier League and evenings coaching two women’s teams, was over.
But constant fear of bombardment from low-flying planes as they roared past her home and concerns for 11-year-old Eva’s safety had begun to take their toll.
So Striletska packed her daughter, a friend’s wife and their two children into a car and drove to Poland, sitting behind the wheel for hours to beat nightly curfews.
“It was difficult because they had taken down all the traffic signs,” he says. “We had to hide in a village on the way while we waited for the tanks to pass.
“Once we went to a church and slept on the floor, I had driven for 18 hours and just wanted to sleep. At 6 in the morning we started again.
“It took me four days. After we got to the border we were queuing for 17 hours, but after that it was easy: I felt we were safe.”
Striletska could only hope her husband and fellow soccer coach Sergiy was safe as he had to stay behind.
“He will defend our house because for us it is a second time,” he 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.
“For three weeks I cried every day,” she says. “I forgot that I was in the world of football because I was thinking about the war. That’s why I had to start refereeing.”
Striletska says the Ukrainian FA, which has offered to help all of its referees, has contacted their Swiss counterparts on their behalf; he was given matches in the third-tier Swiss men’s promotion league.
“I am very grateful for this because the Swiss federation has given me many games,” she says. “It helps because for at least two hours I can forget about the war and just see defenders, attackers, offside.”
‘Enjoy the moment’
With her daughter settling into school, Striletska has spent her days following her FIFA fitness program and learning German.
“Switzerland is doing a lot for the Ukrainians, all museums, trains and buses are free for us,” he says. “I really can’t thank this country enough, they have even organized a free language course for us.”
Despite her gratitude, Striletska is desperate to quickly return to her homeland. For now, however, she keeps in touch through the Internet.
“Now our region is more or less normal, the Russians have gone to Donbas and to the east,” he says. “Sometimes my husband says they hear explosions, but not like before. Even our sports hall is starting to work and I’m doing training sessions with the girls online.”
Another morale boost is the call for a second Women’s European Championship alongside Monzul, who also left Ukraine and has since refereed in Italy’s Women’s Serie A.
“I was very happy to receive the news about the European Championship,” says Striletska. “It’s an amazing feeling, I can forget about the war and I’m looking forward to working together again.”
The two were last in the UK in November for Arsenal’s Women’s Champions League tie with Danish outfit 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, as have her values.
“After this I realize that you don’t need much in life,” he explains. “Money is not important, the most important thing is relationships between people.
“People are helping me, talking to me, bringing fruit to my daughter, small but useful things, and those are the things that are important in our lives.
“We’re always trying to get higher, work harder, buy things, but really, you just need to enjoy the moment.”