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Some much needed ‘buona notizia’ from Italian football

Kataryna Monzul and Moustapha Cissé give Serie A some good news stories

Bologna FC v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Alessio Marini/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s not easy to stay positive these days, especially if you’ve been keeping a close eye on the news. As someone who lives in Poland, the current Russian invasion of Ukraine is something that is very much in my thoughts right now. In another weekend where Serie A was again marred by racist abuse, even football doesn’t always manage to bring some light relief.

Italian football, even now in 2022, is still a place where players face racist abuse in our stadiums. This is something which the authorities need to do something about, and it needs serious solutions at this stage. It doesn’t help when you have clubs, like Cagliari, who defend the racists among their fans, instead, blaming the victims for provoking them.

Luckily for us, Fiorentina are giving their fans plenty to be happy about this season, and in an effort to bring some more good news to the table, I thought I’d highlight a couple of other stories which brightened up the weekend’s action.

Last night, Atalanta managed to pull off a 1-0 win away to Bologna, and it was the scorer of their winning goal who is deservedly grabbing plenty of headlines. Moustapha Elhadji Cissé is a new name for Italian football followers, but he could be someone who we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the future. An 18-year-old coming off the bench for his first ever Serie A game and grabbing the only goal of the game would always be a headline grabber, but Moustapha’s story is even more incredible.

He arrived in Italy at 16 years of age in 2019, escaping poverty-stricken Guinea after the death of his father. Having initially stayed at a refugee centre in Terni, Moustapha then moved to Lecce. Here he joined the Rinascita Refugees, a football club made up of asylum seekers and immigrants. The club currently competes in the eight-tier of Italian football, in Group C of Puglia’s Seconda Categoria. It was Roberto Nitto who discovered the player, when he saw him compete in a summer five-a-side tournament. Both Atalanta and Genoa gave the striker a trial in January, and it was the Bergamo side who decided to snap him up.

By the end of February, he had made his debut for the Atalanta Primavera side. The Under 19’s won 3-1 away to Milan, and Cissé scored their first two goals. He also scored the only goal in a win over Napoli less than two weeks ago, and Gian Piero Gasperini had by now seen enough to call him up to the senior squad. Moustapha was an unused sub in Atalanta’s draw at home to Genoa on Sunday March 13th and was again named among the substitutes for Sunday night’s game at Bologna.

With Atalanta finding no way past Łukasz Skorupski in the Bologna goal, Gasperini decided the time had come for Moustapha Cissé to make his entrance. Luis Muriel was replaced with 25 minutes left in the game, and 17 minutes later that decision was vindicated. Another substitute, Mario Pasalic, picked up a pass from Teun Koopmeiners. He spotted Cissé free just inside the box and played the ball through. Played onside by Aaron Hickey, Moustapha took one touch with his right foot, before letting fly with a left footed shot which found the corner of the net.

The hero of the game and the fairy-tale story had a real happy ending. Refugees have certainly been in the news in recent weeks, as already, well over 3 million people have fled Ukraine after the brutal Russian invasion. The majority of those have arrived here in Poland, and the other border countries, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, and Hungary, have also seen large numbers entering. Some of these will then move on, maybe to family or friends in other countries, or anywhere they can find a safe haven and a temporary home.

With men between the ages of 18 and 60 unable to leave Ukraine, the vast majority of those fleeing are women and children. While foreign players of Ukrainian clubs have been given permission to join other clubs for the rest of the season, one of those women who left her home has already found a way to continue her career in football.

Kataryna Monzul is regarded as one of the top referees in the world, and not just in women’s football. Monzul began refereeing internationally in 2007, and since then has directed matches at the highest level of the women’s game. These include the final of both the Champions League and the World Cup. She then became the first female referee to officiate a game in the Ukrainian Premier League and was voted the league’s best referee in the 2019/20 season.

In November 2020, Kataryna refereed a Nations League game between San Marino and Gibraltar. This was the first time ever that an all-female refereeing team took charge of a men’s international game. Since then, she has been the referee in a number of games in the most recent World Cup qualifying series, including England’s win over Andorra. This season has also seen her officiate in the Europa League.

Living in Kharkiv, the moment came when Kataryna had to make the decision to leave the ever-increasing danger. Her parents stayed behind, as she made the long journey to safety with her sisters and their children. Having hidden from the bombs underground, she spoke of how the children cried all the time and at times were unable to speak from the shock. Knowing how dangerous it would also be to try to escape, they were left with little choice as the bombings only intensified in her home city. So began the long trip, which saw them cross Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Germany.

An offer came from Italy, with both Aia, the refereeing body, and the FIGC, helping her find a place to stay, and a chance to return to work. On Sunday, she took charge of the Serie A Femminile game between Inter and Sampdoria where Kataryna entered the pitch wrapped in the Ukrainian flag.

After the game she spoke of how it felt like a return to normal life after everything that has happened since February 24th. It’s impossible to forget of course, and her thoughts are constantly with those left behind.

While we wait for things to hopefully improve in Ukraine, for now let’s hope we see more of Kataryna Monzul in Italian football. To have someone of her experience is something that should be appreciated. This is a referee who has taken charge of the biggest rivalry in Ukrainian football, Dynamo Kyiv versus Shakhtar Donetsk, and Kataryna Monzul would be a great asset to Serie A football, and not just in the women’s league!

(Here Kataryna shows she’s well able to handle one of the toughest games in football, as clashes between Dynamo and Shakhtar often descend into brawls, and red cards are a tradition. She also knows how to use VAR effectively. )