From Julio Chitunda, PA International
When Valentyn Melnychuk left his home country of Ukraine to live on the small island of Madeira off the south-west coast of Portugal 11 years ago, he could not have dreamt he would today be at the forefront of Portuguese basketball.
The 64-year-old, who was initially in charge of the Club Amigos do Basquete in Madeira, is now the coach of a Portugal national team that is catching up fast on their European rivals.
For the first time in their history, Portugal are in Division A for their 2005 European Championship qualifying campaign, and they still harbour hopes of making it all the way to Belgrade.
||We still hope to be at Euro 2005 in Belgrade
Melnychuk's men knew they would be up against it when they were handed a tough draw in group B, along with Bulgaria, Israel and Latvia, and they finished at the foot of the table.
However a stunning 101-96 win against Israel in Tel-Aviv recently made European basketball fans sit up and take notice, and they still have one last chance - albeit a slim one - to qualify for next year's tournament.
One final place at the European Championships will go to the team who come out on top of a competition between Portugal, and the eight other nations who failed to secure automatic qualification from Division A.
"When I found out about the teams we would be playing in the qualifying group, I knew that because of their history in the sport they would be strong, and I thought it would be very bad for us," Melnychuk told PA International.
"I think that we had a very good preparation phase. We played international games against Poland, Holland, Czech Republic and Russia and it made us so strong. It made us believe we could play in the same league as any team.
"We still hope to be at Euro 2005 in Belgrade. Next August we'll have the last chance to seal the passport to the tournament.
"It'll be very difficult, because of the potential of our rivals. We'll have to beat Czech Republic, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Hungary, Poland, Israel and Latvia.
"But our dream is still alive."
As well as competing for a place in the European Championships proper, Portugal will also play in a smaller tournament for the right to remain in Division A, and avoid relegation to Division B.
"Whether or not we can qualify, we will be focused on staying in Division A," Melnychuk added.
"All of these games make us stronger, and the team spirit and the willingness to learn are our real strengths."
Domestically, Melnychuk acknowledges that Portugal have a way to go before their club teams - who mostly come from the capital city Lisbon - can compete with European club teams from the established basketball strongholds in Turkey, Italy, Spain, France and eastern Europe.
The Portugal chief also knows that a successful domestic league would have a positive knock-on effect to the national team.
"One of the problems is that most of our players play in the Portuguese league as opposed to other players like Latvians, Bulgarians and Israelis," said Melnychuk.
"Eight Latvian players are connected to very competitive leagues like in Spain, Italy or France. All of those leagues are much more competitive than ours.
"We have to focus our efforts on nurturing new players. That's very important, producing players like Rui Mota, Antonio Tavares and Sergio Ramos, who are all very important to us.
"I also think that some Portuguese players lose their places in their club team to foreign players. There is an excess of foreign players in the national league.
"Portugal is growing slowly. But we could grow up quickly if the teams focus on developing players."
Despite the perceived problems in the Portuguese league, Melnychuk remains optimistic that the current crop of youngsters at his disposal can form the backbone of a successful national team for years to come.
"Twice a month, in the north and the south, a group of about 20 of us have been gathering to train," he added.
"Nowadays we have so many young boys coming through, which is fantastic. It didn't used to happen a few years ago.
"If we had more money our destiny would be different, but Portugal is a football country.
"We don't have the tradition in the game like other countries, but I've been working in basketball for years, and I am confident."