Albanian star Velaj enjoying the best of both worlds
Furtuna Velaj was forced to flee her homeland at the age of seven
Albanian international made a new home in the USA
"Finland taught me to be more relaxed"
Match reports often lapse into cliché, and every other game seems to be described as a battle or a struggle. Fortunately for most footballers, metaphorical battles and struggles are the only ones that they will ever know.
Furtuna Velaj is different. The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia forced her and her family to flee their homeland when she was just seven and move to the USA. "I was very young when the Kosovo/Serbian war happened and we moved to the US. The US has been very welcoming to my family and we created a home here," Velaj explains in an interview with FIFA.com.
"We're very proud of our culture and where we come from, and our language. My parents always wanted to make sure that we never forget where we came from. I was young but I also remembered a lot of where I grew up. I would say: ‘Yes, but the US is my home because my family’s here and I grew up here’.
"But at the same time, I am from Kosovo – that's my culture and my background. To be honest, I'm very fortunate that my family moved here. If I had grown up in Kosovo, I don't know if I would've played soccer or pursued it at all," she continues.
The 30-year-old knows full well what kinds of boundless opportunities her new homeland has given her and will continue to provide her with. Thanks to football, she has been able to go to school, get a college education and then go on to live in a number of different countries and environments.
Her career began at Connecticut FC, where the trophies she won included the Connecticut State Cup. After that, she moved to other clubs in the USA, Iceland (UMF Afturelding), Canada (Toronto Lady Lynx), Finland (PK 35 Vantaa), Norway (Kolbotn IL) and Germany (SC Sand).
"I tell everybody that I pick something up from every different country. In the US I learned the ‘never give up’ attitude, work hard ‘til the end and do everything 100 per cent. The Canadians are similar but they have a little bit of a European mentality too when it comes to soccer. I was only there for summer and played for Toronto.
"I think six of my former team-mates are in the Canadian national team right now, like Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan. It’s crazy that all these girls that I played with ended up in the national team and I watched them playing in the World Cup," says Velaj.
"The country that influenced me the most was Norway. Everybody there is super fit, and that's where I learned a lot about eating better and just how to be a professional soccer player. In Finland I learned how to be more relaxed and in Norway I learned how to take my fitness to another level.
"I think I learned the most in Germany, and that was where I developed the most. I learned a lot about tactics, better technique. The Germans don't run as much like in the US but they're smarter. They understand the game better. They’re not running and working as hard but their understanding of the game was so much better – they just knew where to be at the right time at the right moment. I found it harder to play against German than American players."
Born in Peje, Kosovo, Velaj is now a citizen of the world and can share her wide-ranging knowledge and experience with her team-mates in the Albanian squad. She won her first cap back in 2011 and has gone on to help them make it through pre-qualifying and into the main qualifying rounds for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ twice in a row, in 2015 and 2019.
"Growing up here (in the USA) I was always taught to work hard, to never stop, to never give up no matter what. I think it's a bit of an American mentality. Girls are encouraged to be confident and to believe in themselves. I was taught to just go after my goals, to be aggressive, to not be afraid to be myself and to be confident.
"The majority of my team-mates in the Albanian national team are from Kosovo even though we all have Albanian roots. I thought their mentality was slightly different. They're not as aggressive and not taking more initiative."
Velaj however knows that there is more to success than merely having an American-style mindset. "Albania is a small country and the perfect example. OK, it's not economically and financially as strong as Norway (but) in my opinion the Scandinavian countries are the best examples for a country like Albania. If you look at the men's side – what for example Iceland did.
"A country of 300,000 people that was able to qualify for all these big tournaments. We are a country of a little over two million plus all the players that live abroad, so you have a large pool. It's just a matter of mentality."
Keep on believing in yourself, follow your dreams and give it 100 per cent! If the dynamic Velaj can pass this message on to the next generation then Albania will certainly be a team to watch in the future.
Pictures courtesy of Afrim Peposhi / Albanian Football Association (AFA)