New York Surf forward Furtuna Velaj has lived a life most could not imagine. And no matter the challenges she has faced, from her days as a child growing up in war-torn Kosovo to her trek through Europe and eventually to the United States, soccer has been a constant.
“My family lived in a small village in Kosovo, and I used to play soccer all the time,” Velaj said. “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.”
The ever-growing conflict between Kosovo and Serbia eventually forced Velaj, then seven years old, and her family out of their home as they headed to the United States. The trek was not easy, as they first relocated in Montenegro en route to Spain and Cuba, and then to Florida and 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 U.S., but one constant remained.
“Soccer has played a very important role in my life,” Velaj said. “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.”
Velaj eventually earned her way into Quinnipiac University in North Haven, Connecticut. During her college days, 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 graduating from Quinnipiac, 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.
Following her season with the Surf in United Women’s Soccer, Velaj will look to join an NWSL club.
She said her persistence in pursuing her professional soccer career, despite the many challenges she has faced, comes from the values she received from her family.
“You have to work hard. Life isn’t always fair,” she said. “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 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.”
And she has a message to the next generation of women soccer players.
“My message to every young girl out there who wants to be a professional soccer player is this,” Velaj said. “School is more important than anything. 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.”
Player profile provided by New York Surf.