By Paul Nilsen
|For Ana Lelas, things are quite straightforward when it comes to play for the national team. 'You should put aside your personal goals and be proud to wear the jersey,' the Croatia forward says|
Ana Lelas is expecting Croatia to continue with an exciting new chapter this summer and help bury the shame she still feels after failing to qualify for EuroBasket Women 2009.
When it comes to assessing the recent history of Croatia at the elite level, you can be assured to get a candid assessment from the forward who speaks passionately about playing for her country.
The Ghost Of EuroBaskets Past
Thrilled with booking a place in Poland after an impressive Qualifying Round campaign, Lelas is counting down the days to the big event and is ready to exorcise the ghost of missing out two years ago in Latvia.
"Our objective last summer was to qualify for Eurobasket Women 2011 and we always believed that was possible, but there are always some unexpected games or conditions.
"It's true we didn't start very well, maybe because we beat Italy in the first game. That was a a big win for us and perhaps we then thought it was going to be easy, " Lelas says.
"Then of course, we faced reality and lost two games in the row. This proved that every game was going to be tough and we needed to stay focused right until the end.
"We were without two very experienced players in Emilija Podrug and Petra Stampalija who got hurt in the first game.
"I think that made us even stronger to not give up, give our best and prove ourselves that we can do it when things get tough.
"As long as we played this way, we always had a chance and in the end, we made our dream come true.
"It's true that we haven't been to EuroBasket Women tournaments a lot, although I really do think we should have qualified for 2009. For me it's sad to see all Croatians playing overseas and yet we are not able to qualify regularly for EuroBasket Women.
"Sometimes it's hard to find a good harmony between players because we are all used to playing different roles in our teams and when it comes to the National Team, it's something different.
"You should be proud to wear that jersey, put aside your personal goals, and adapt yourself to the team.
Looking Forward, Not Back
"When it came to qualifying for EuroBasket Women 2009, we looked completely lost. I felt really ashamed we didn't even pass the qualifying group and make it, but I guess it happens in sport and sometimes you need to accept to lose and then learn from it," the Croatia international admits.
"That's why I'm hoping that EuroBasket Women 2011 will be a new opportunity for us. It's not the same team, these girls are young and for some of them, it's going be the first EuroBasket Women but we all have to go through it and that's why I think we will be very motivated."
It's widely anticipated Croatia will continue to go in a new direction at the tournament, like they did last summer with a relatively young team, as they look to build a team capable of sustaining success. That suits Lelas perfectly who is desperate for the National Team to start shining in the future on a regular basis - even though she accepts life in Group D will be tough.
|22-year-old Marija Vrsaljko had a great season with Gospic, averaging 13.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in EuroLeague Women, but unfortunately for Croatia she won't be able to get on the plane to Poland|
"EuroBasket Women 2011 means a lot to us, because generally we are a young team - although some of us are not young anymore.
"Of course when you get a chance to play with the best teams in Europe and with great players, it means a lot. It's an experience where you can test your quality too.
"I just wish that Women's basketball was more popular in Croatia since I think we deserve it. Like any other sport, maybe it's time to show some more good games and then it will come after good results.
"There's still regret for not going on EuroBasket Women 2009, but we can't do anything about it now - we can only try to change our future."
Group D Is No Walk In The Park
"Our group in EuroBasket Women is definitely a tough group. I know France very well and the way they play, they have very good post players so that might be the biggest problem for us," says Lelas when asked to evaluate Round 1 Group D, where Croatia were drawn in.
"Greece are playing more like we do with more or less four outside players and since they have recently been to the FIBA World Championship Women, I'm sure experience is on their side.
"As for Latvia, I haven't seen them playing in a long time, but they definitely have big names on their roster.
"It's a tough group but I still believe in us, we have to focus on ourselves, play our game, get in the best shape possible and have confidence.
"I'm not scared of anyone as long as when we are on the court, we give ourselves a chance to play.
"We have no pressure, so that should be to our advantage and we can just go to Poland, play our game and enjoy it."
Life Without Vrsaljko
While Lelas and her team-mates are eager to get onto court and test their progress in the wake of their efforts last summer, they have suffered one significant blow with a serious injury to Marija Vrsaljko ruling out one of the rising stars of EuroLeague Women.
Lelas in particular has lots of sympathy for the Gospic Croatia center, having sustained a serious injury herself not so long ago.
"The injury to Marija Vrsaljko is a big loss for our team since she got hurt second year in the row. She came back on the court last summer after knee surgery and then she got hurt again this time and I'm really sorry for her.
"We will miss her, but we have to figure it out without her. At least she's still young even though she has experience in EuroLeague Women and she did well this season.
"I'm sure she would help us a lot and it's especially hard when you are hurt as a young player and I am sure will learn from it. What doesn't destroy you, makes you stronger. I'm sure she will get back on the court with even more will to show everyone that that injury helped her to grow like as a player and as a person.
"I think we are all the same when it comes to injuries, we all want to come back on the court as soon as possible but patience is a big word we have to learn live with. We all wish her the best."
No Place Like Home?
If Croatia realise their potential at EuroBasket Women this summer then it would make life even sweeter for Lelas who couldn't be happier with the way things are going for her in France.
"Right now I'm playing with Montpellier and I love it. The city is very nice and since it's my seventh year in France, I feel it's my second home! I'm really comfortable here, and I'm used to this kind of life.
"The league is really tough and that's what I love the most about French basketball. I have a contract for one more year and so I'm excited about next season and I hope we can do even better than this year."