Athletes love to use the term battle in reference to a hard fought game. But let’s be honest many of them have not and will not experience the true horrors or wars. The blood a player receives from a knock on the pitch is nothing compared the bloodshed the families of Kosovo dealt with in the late 90s during the civil wars in Yugoslavia. A war that tore families and a country apart. A war that forced soccer player Furtuna Velaj and her family to flee to the U.S. to start a new life. When they arrived in the U.S., in 1998, Furtuna was just 7-years-old. She played soccer as a small child in Yugoslavia and she continued to play the game loved throughout her childhood. Furtuna excelled at the sport and became a deadly force up front. She took her talents to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut where she scored a ton of goals. After college she played for the Boston Breaks (WSPL) , which is now part of the NWSL, and in 2011 she called up to play for ethnic roots country of Albania. She currently playing for The Toronto Lady Lynx in the W-League. I had the chance to ask her about her journey and playing the beautiful game.
Charlie Flowe: “What some of your earliest memories of Kosovo before the war?”
Furtuna Velaj: “My earliest memories of growing up in Kosovo consists of hot summers, long winters, church every Sunday, playing soccer with my friends, walking to school and poverty in the village of Gllogjan. I remember my mom having to heat up the water in order to wash us, only getting nice new clothe for Easter, and helping out my family on the farm. Our life was simple but we were content without luxury.”
Charlie Flowe: “How did you get into playing soccer? And has it helped you get through difficult times in life?
Furtuna Velaj: “I started playing soccer with the kids in my village as soon as I could run and kick a soccer ball. We played soccer every chance we got before school, during recess, after school and after church.”
Charlie Flowe: “During the your struggles who did you look up to? Who now do you look up on the soccer field?”
Furtuna Velaj: “Growing up I looked up to a lot of celebrities such as Paolo Maldini, Shevchenko, Martin Luther King Jr, Rivaldo, Mia Hamm, Allen Iverson, Bo Jackson to name just a few.”
Furtuna Velaj: “Now I look up Drogba, Suarez, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Ribery”
Furtuna Velaj: “Yes, soccer has helped me deal with a lot of difficulties in my life and it has thought me a lot about people and life.”
Charlie Flowe: “How can sports reunited war torn countries and families ?”
Furtuna Velaj: “I think sports can unite a country at the national team level by giving supporters a symbol to root for at the highest and most public stage regardless of what’s going on at home. For the Albanian people from Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Albania and in other parts of the world the men’s national team and the women’s team is becoming the uniting force of all Albanians throughout the world.”
Charlie Flowe: “What was the process like to play for the Albanian National Team ?”
Furtuna Velaj: “I first got noticed by the Albanian national team when I was studying abroad in London. I was training with the Millwall Ladies and the goalkeeper coach Albert Kurti, now the head coach, saw me and asked me if I would be interested in playing for Albania. I said yes I would considered it and got my 1st invite in the fall of 2011 and they have kept inviting me since then.”
Charlie Flowe: “What were the emotions like putting on Albanian jersey?”
Furtuna Velaj: “In my 1st international friendly game putting on the Albanian jersey was a little confusing because I was born in Kosovo but grew up in the United States and now I was playing for Albania. However, that confusion was erased as soon I started playing because even though we were playing an international friendly in Macedonia hearing the little kids there singing the same songs that I grow up hearing in Kosovo and the US showed me that no matter where I go or grew up that I’ll always be Albanian. “
Charlie Flowe: “What’s your mind set and goals for playing in the W-League for Toronto, knowing you one step away from of the NWSL?
Furtuna Velaj: “My mind set and goals for the Toronto Lady Lynx are to start every game, score goals and help them get to the playoffs. I want to play as many games as I can from now until September so that I can be prepared for the European World Cup qualifiers. We have a really tough group and I want to work hard this summer to help my national team win 2 games in September and 2 games in November.”
Furtuna Velaj: “In regards to the NWSL, I was very close to playing in the league with the Sky Blue and the Portland Thorns as I was invited to both teams preseason, and I opted to try out for Portland. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good try out in Portland and I didn’t make the cut. However, I was not truly disappointed because I knew I was trying out for one of the best teams in the league and at the try out I wasn’t at playing my best soccer and fitness.”
image courtesy of UEFA.com