The story of an Italian pitch invader-turned-soccer pro who left India to help Ukraine refugees flee to Poland

Mario Ferri might be a bit of an unknown figure outside of the Italian public scene. Ferri, who’s commonly known as “Il Falco” (The Falcon) by those close to him, earned some notoriety a few years back not for being a footballer, but for his lighthearted antics as a globe-trotting pitch invader. He would travel from Italian to European and South American venues — notably the World Cup — and storm onto the field while wearing a Superman shirt. Once on the field, he would engage with players and rile up the fans. He would later become friends with some of the players on the same pitch he invaded.

But this is not a story about an Italian pitch invader-turned professional soccer player who’s looking to cause more trouble. This is actually a story about the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and how this person dropped everything on a dime to travel to the border of Poland and help the Ukrainian refugees escape their homeland. 

“As we speak, I’m in Poland, in a city called Medyka, close to the border with Ukraine,” Ferri told CBS Sports. “Yesterday we brought 60 women to this side with a bus …” 

Ferri is currently under contract with United Sports Club in Kolkata, a second-division side out of India. At the beginning of February, the 35-year-old footballer came back from India after the league decided to stop the competition until June after COVID-19 cases rapidly increased in the region. 

When he arrived in his hometown of Pescara, he couldn’t stay much longer. “I have a friend here [in Poland] and he told me what was going on. I’m concrete person, and what I saw in India really touched me. People there are suffering so much. I needed to give something back even in a totally different context. So I flew to Poland, rented a car and drove to the border with Ukraine,” Ferri told CBS Sports. 

What Ferri has been doing is something special: He drives families of refugees that are headed to the border to seek asylum and then comes back to find others that are seeking for help. Most of them are women and children because the majority of the male population isn’t allowed to flee the country as things stand. 

“At the beginning, I started with an association that deals with refugees here and I’m still working with them, but then I noticed that many Ukrainians were texting me on Instagram,” Ferri revealed. “I thought that social media were only for useless things, but now I have a totally different view of it. 

“Instagram in some ways is helping so many people now in this situation and I’m grateful that I can do something for them. I receive around 30-40 messages per day, and also from people in Italy that tell me that they have some relatives and family members here that need help here. This is how it works.”

Ferri spent years with the goal of invading several venues around the world. Now he has another goal: He wants to be the first soccer player to ever play professionally in all five continents once he leaves the Polish-Ukrainian border. With Europe, Africa and Asia already crossed off his list, he’s targeting a move next year to the United States and to Australia. “In one year, I’ll make it,” a convinced Ferri said.

Ferri is taking this new and unexpected role very seriously: “I do it on my own. I pay for everything and I want nothing back. I almost had a fight the other day because I saw a man asking money for doing what I do. It’s unacceptable, people are desperate here and there are few that want to make a business out of it. 

“I go to Lviv, look for people that need help and I drive for five, 10, 15 hours. Lviv is like a harbor for Ukrainians who want to leave the country. Outside the country [in Poland especially] is full of people that are helping, but inside Ukraine many are worried that something can happen to them.”

Ferri has seen it all these days. He barely took a shower in 10 days because he was forced to sleep either in his car, inside buses or in trains for many cold nights, but he’s even more motivated to provide help in what has been a tragic humanitarian crisis. His motivation comes from the same people he’s driving to the border. Their stories, their desperate need for help and their painful escape is what motivates him to keep helping these Ukrainian refugees daily.

“There are two of them that I won’t forget,” Ferri recalled. “A mother with her kid [named] David. I was in Ukraine and his father came to me and told me to bring them to the border. He couldn’t leave, he’s a financial adviser but he’s now fighting for his country. When we started our drive, she couldn’t even speak for the first two hours [because of] her tears.”

“When we arrived at the border with Poland, I decided to do something more and I drove to Warsaw, where they had a place to stay. I drove for 15 hours that day, even if we were stuck in the traffic for almost 10. I did it because I couldn’t leave them at the border, I felt I couldn’t do it. 

“You know, with David, I felt I had a very special relationship, even for the few hours we were together. I’m sure he understood something, I’m sure of it … I just finished a FaceTime with them, David was smiling.”

Visit CBS News for the latest on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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