During the Yugoslav wars and chaos of the 1990s, Sunaj Beljulji (pronounced Bell-Jull-Jee) found himself growing up in a Bosnian refugee camp, kicking around a soccer ball at age three with his older brothers. For three years after that, he and his nine siblings did what was necessary to survive, and to find makeshift fields and free corners to play the game that kept them dreaming.
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“All I remember is we didn’t know or have much there,” Beljulji told ussoccer.com in a recent interview. “The U.N. helped us, and we mostly played soccer – barefoot, whatever, whenever we could.”
(Sunaj Beljulji is a powerful presence up front for NPSL side Dakota Fusion)
He is still playing soccer, and still doing it with two of his brothers. Now, though, the Beljuljis are playing for the Dakota Fusion of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), heading for a First Round match on May 9 away to Duluth F.C. in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It often sounds like a cliché when players refer to their club as a family, but in this case, it’s at least partly true.
Sunaj Beljulji is a starting forward and midfielder for the Fusion, who scored two goals with nine assists last season. Emran Beljulji plays midfield and Habib Beljulji is the team’s backup goalkeeper.
On at least a couple of occasions last year, all three of the brothers were on the field at the same time for the Fusion. The club plays its home matches in Moorhead, Minn., just outside of Fargo, N.D., and features an international mingling of players that includes Ghanaians, Liberians and Brits. The Beljuljis, who escaped Serbia during those dark years, are ethnic Albanian Muslims.
From Far & Wide to Fargo
“Africa, Europe, you name it, we have it on this team,” Beljulji said. “We all come from different places and countries, but roll the ball out and we unite. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. On the field we’re all one team. Everybody speaks English. But when we’re in a game, we speak our own languages so opponents don’t know what we’re saying. That’s what is so cool, this international cast.”
Although outsiders may not think of the Fargo/Moorhead area as a melting pot, the region draws a sizable immigrant community for work opportunities and its three area universities. After first moving to Atlanta from Bosnia, the Beljuljis migrated northwest. In addition to playing soccer for the Fusion, the three brothers work full time at different jobs while caring for their parents.
(Emran Beljulji works the midfield for the Fusion, looking to feed his brother Sunaj)
Sunaj makes his living giving rides to seniors with a Fargo-based transportation company. For the moment, however, he is mostly concentrating on the upcoming soccer season and a chance to play in the 105th edition of the U.S. Open Cup. A new coach, Nick Becker, from the University of Jamestown, has taken over the Fusion reins and has been working the team hard in preparation for the tournament.
New Coach, New Approach
“So far, we only had a few practices and a game, but he means business,” Sunaj Beljulji said of the new man in charge. “He’s very serious. He’s going to get us to go far.”
The Fusion qualified for the Open Cup after a 2017 season where they won nine games and lost five, earning a trip to the NPSL playoffs. The Fusion split a pair of matches last season with Duluth F.C., their First Round Open Cup opponents next month, though Beljulji believes it is “a hundred times harder” playing them on the road than it is at home. The matchup still represents quite an opportunity for the Beljuljis and Co.
When Sunaj first heard from former coach Jim Robbins that the club might qualify for the tournament, he was skeptical. Now, he’s ecstatic!
Opportunity Beyond Belief
“Honestly, I remember last year our coach telling us at a banquet, there was a possibility we could be joining the Open Cup, and I was thinking, ‘Sure we will,’” Beljulji admitted. “Then it happened. It’s amazing for me, my brothers and the whole team. It’s a chance to show we have skills around here, not just in the big cities. We have a lot of talent in this area.”
The aptly-named Fusion was founded just two years ago by Sajid and Amanda Ghauri, who were looking to create a semi-professional opportunity for gifted young players in the region.
(Habib is the last line of defense for Dakota Fusion - the team's back-up goalkeeper)
“I had been sending them off to different tournaments, but the kids had quite a challenge in getting to that next level,” Ghauri said. “They were frustrated, not getting the opportunity. It’s hard getting sponsors in this area, because they don’t know soccer very well. We’re a hockey town. So, my company budgeted some money to get the new club started.”
All Aboard the Fusion Bus
Ghauri, who came to America from Pakistan 30 years ago, has worked for 17 years in the telecommunications industry and founded Network & Technology Solutions in Fargo in 2004. He’s been generous with his funding of the club, even providing the team with its own bus for road matches.
“We have to be thankful for Sajid,” Sunaj Beljulji said. “I think we’re the only team in NPSL that has a bus and we feel very privileged. That’s where most of the fun is, on the bus. Some players, their English is a little hard to understand, but we all end up laughing.”
(Dakota Fusion Owner Sajid Ghauri (left) presents the Golden Ball trophy to Jade Johnson)
Ghauri played and coached soccer himself for many years and is brimming with excitement about the upcoming Open Cup. Four members of the Fusion were offered professional contracts after last season, and Ghauri hopes there are more opportunities for the area’s players out there. And more contracts to come.
“This will give an opportunity to anybody who plays for our team,” Ghauri said. “To polish their skill set and exposure to scouts. We are not their next level. We are their steppingstone. The U.S. Open Cup gives us such exposure to our kids. We are celebrating the opportunity, for both the kids and the club too.”