Written by John Archibald for New York Surf Soccer Club.
Throughout the world, soccer is known as the beautiful game, an artform that serves as the perfect canvas for creativity and self-expression. Soccer is a universal language that does not even require an exchange of verbal communication for interaction to occur.
In the case of many who play the game, such as New York Surf forward Furtuna Velaj, soccer becomes synonymous with the person they ultimately become. As a child in conflict-stricken Kosovo, Velaj found soccer to be her greatest escape. With a ball at her feet, the struggles that surrounded her quickly disappeared.
“My family lived in a small village in Kosovo, and I used to play soccer all the time,” Velaj recalled. “At school during recess and every Sunday after church, I would play. I was a bit of a tomboy, so I was playing pretty much any chance I got. I lived on a farm, and we didn’t have a TV. There were only animals. We were really poor, so we didn’t have much entertainment. Soccer was one of those things that was like ‘here’s a ball, play.’ You would play with animals, whether it was with rocks or a soccer ball.”
Ever-growing conflict between Kosovo and Serbia eventually forced a seven-year-old Velaj and her family out of their home, and they fled to the United States. The trek was not an easy one, first relocating to Montenegro en route to Spain and Cuba, and then from Florida to New York before landing in Connecticut where an aunt lived. Living in a two-bedroom apartment with 20 family members, Velaj adjusted to a new life in the United States, but one constant remained.
“Soccer has played a very important role in my life,” she remarked. “Soccer gave me the opportunity to go to school and to get a college education. It gave me an opportunity to travel and to see so many places, which has made me a well-rounded person and has opened my eyes up to the world. If it wasn’t for soccer, I never would have been able to do that at such a young age.”
Her soccer skills continually increased, and Velaj eventually earned her way into Quinnipiac University in North Haven, Connecticut. She shined on the field, recording 94 points on 39 goals and 16 assists during her four years on campus. The points and goals are fourth best in program history. Velaj also excelled in the classroom, getting a degree in Political Science.
Since graduation from Quinnipiac University, she has suited up for the Albania Women’s National Team, and she also spent time with the Boston Breakers in between the closure of Women’s Professional Soccer and the foundation of the National Women’s Soccer League. Additionally, she has traveled the world playing with Afturelding (Iceland), Toronto Lady Lynx (USL W-League), PK-35 Vantaa (Finland), Kolbotn IL (Norway), SC Sand (Germany) and now with New York Surf in United Women’s Soccer.
Still just 27-years-old, Velaj has plenty of soccer left in her, and she will look to join a National Women’s Soccer League club at the conclusion of the UWS season. However, if she were to hang up her boots tomorrow, she has already proven that who she is as a person is much greater than any accomplishments that can be achieved within the game itself. She stands as the ultimate example of perseverance, always displaying the type of attitude that will lead her to success in any avenue she pursues in life.
“My attitude comes from the values I got from my family, and I think that is reflected in how I play soccer,” she stated. “You have to work hard. Life isn’t always fair. Things are going to happen in your life that you can’t control, but you can always control your attitude. You have to control how you react and in what you do. My family always taught me to work hard and be a good person. When I play soccer, that’s what I try to do; work hard and be a good teammate. I used to have crazy ambitious goals because I am a very ambitious person, but the older I’ve gotten, the more humble I’ve become. If it happens, it happens. But if not, life goes on. It’s not the end of the world.”
Every single one of us could learn a lot from the way Velaj approaches life. And while soccer has indeed helped her in becoming the person she is today, she stresses to any young girl reading this that soccer must always be secondary when getting your education.
“My message to every young girl out there who wants to be a professional soccer player is this. School is more important than anything,” she said. “You need an education. That’s one thing my parents taught me. Education is always number one, and sports is number two. Playing soccer is a short-term career, so you can only do it temporarily. Eventually, you need a backup plan. First is education.
“Secondly, never stop growing and learning as a soccer player or as a human being. You have to keep that positive mindset to never stop learning and never stop wanting to grow. Nothing in life comes easily. The best things in life are actually really hard. Success doesn’t come easily, either. You just have to keep working and keep pounding away, and also enjoy the journey because that’s the best part.”
No one understands the importance of the journey more so than Velaj does. From living in a small village in Kosovo to a Connecticut community that resides just outside the biggest city in the world, she has seen life from both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps most important is that she knows her journey is still far from over as well.
And if we learned anything from her insight, it is that our own personal journeys are dictated by our actions. Approach life with the proper attitude, and the possibilities for your future are endless.