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Athlete chooses to serve God over soccer

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Even while engulfed in the intense “soccer-comes-first” culture of his native Albania, rather than move into professional leagues with fellow teammates and friends, Enea Rrokaj decided to spend the next two years playing for a different team.

Rrokaj, a junior studying physics, served a full-time mission in Rome, Italy and is now a member of the Spartans, a BYU-Idaho competitive soccer team that won the championship in fall 2013.

Albania is a European country located on the coast of the Adriatic sea which separates it from Italy. Rrokaj said he grew in a Mediterranean culture with warm, welcoming people who value friendship and family first. Kisses on the cheek are customary greetings, and boys and girls who are good friends will hook arms while walking down the street. Overall, Albanians are loyal to those they consider close.

Rrokaj said that like most Europeans, Albanians take soccer seriously.

“In Europe, every boy basically goes through a phase where they play soccer,” Rrokaj said.

Rrokaj said he played at a soccer academy called Flamurtari in his home town of Vlore. Starting at the age of 9, he had an opportunity to play against teams from all across Europe as his team traveled for matches.

“I’ve played in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Malta and Austria,” Rrokaj said. “I can’t remember all of them.”

The training academy’s facility had a professional Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) licensed coach, a team dietician, a gym, soccer pitches (fields) and sand fields for strength and endurance training, and a pool.

Rrokaj said the type of training was varied, depending on whether it was during the regular season, but the team trained hard no matter the time of year.

“We had very intense conditioning,” Rrokaj said. “I remember, for instance, since I live in a coastal city, I would be running in water to my waist for about an hour.”

The teams at the academy were divided by birth year. Rrokaj was part of the ‘88-’89 gro. The teammates received regular physicals with doctors every three months to make sure they were in good shape to compete.

Rrokaj said that after the age of 18, a player would either get signed to play for a club or start to play on lower-level teams. Instead of continuing to play, Rrokaj chose to serve a mission.

“I decided to go on a mission, but two of my really good friends from my club now play for the Albanian national team,” Rrokaj said. “It’s actually cool to see my friends who I grew with playing at those levels, for professional soccer teams.”

Before his mission, Rrokaj was bilingual, speaking Albanian and Italian due to the proximity of his hometown to Italy and the number of Italians who were his neighbors. After returning from full-time service in the Italy Rome mission, where he learned to speak English, he decided to attend school at BYU-Idaho.

Rrokaj said he is respectful of and humbled by the talent possessed by other players here in Rexburg.

“I have found some really good soccer players at BYU-Idaho,” Rrokaj said. “There are players who are way better than me.”

So far during his stay in Rexburg, Rrokaj has been part of three different championship teams, two with head coach Kurtis Cenatiempo, a BYU-Idaho alumnus.

“I knew his skills, and I knew he would definitely make a good addition to my team,” Cenatiempo said. “It definitely paid off.”

Rrokaj said that playing soccer is about much more than the sport. It’s about love and identity.

“Soccer is part of who I am. I will never stop playing, even if I’m not good,” Rrokaj said. “It’s a way of life for me.”

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