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"I could hear my heart racing": Ukrainian women referee recalls journey to the top

KYIV (Reuters) - Kateryna Monzul made history in 2016 when she became the first female referee in Ukraine to officiate a soccer match in the men’s top division, a game between Chornomorets Odesa against Volyn Lutsk.

“Despite the mental training, when I went out on the soccer pitch and watched the teams lining up, I could hear my heart racing. I was overwhelmed with emotions,” recalls Monzul.

That game was part of a journey for the 39-year-old that began with refereeing children’s and youth championships and took her all the way to refereeing the Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and Japan in 2015.

Since then she became the first woman to referee Ukraine’s domestic cup final last year and was named the best referee in the men’s division by the Ukrainian Association of Football in an otherwise male field.

Women referees at men’s top flight soccer matches are rare. France’s Stephanie Frappart became the first woman to referee a major UEFA competition final in 2019 and in December she also became the first woman to referee a men’s Champions League match when she officiated at the Juventus-Dynamo Kyiv game.

This week Monzul joined other women in speaking about the challenges they face and the hopes they have ahead of International Women’s Day on Monday.

Monzul grew up in the eastern Kharkiv region with a soccer pitch next to her home.

“I played soccer with boys. It was not popular among girls back then, but I liked it, I lived and breathed soccer,” said Monzul, who played on boys teams in local tournaments.

Inspired by her uncle, who was a referee, Monzul switched to officiating.

“Just like in any other job, the most important thing is to do your job professionally. Then your skills will be in demand, no matter if you are a man or a woman,” Monzul told Reuters.

“It is the result which matters, not gender.”

To be eligible for officiating men’s matches, she has to pass a men’s fitness test, the toughest part for a woman, Monzul said.

She said there was no difference between refereeing a men’s or women’s match, except that it is a common thing for men’s clubs to gift Monzul flowers.

In 2016 “the team which presented me with red flowers got a red card. And since then there is a joke that it is better to give flowers after the game, not before.”

Editing by Matthias Williams and Raissa Kasolowsky