By Paul Nilsen
By their own admission, Albania is a Federation still hamstrung by financial constraints and as yet, unable to meet both its own ambitions and those of the young players it serves. Making hard choices is a perennial challenge meaning strategy and decision making are of paramount importance for everyone involved.
One of the biggest barriers to the progression of Albania at National Team levels is the limited ability to run a consistent programme at youth level which has meant many talented young players being thrust into the deep waters of the senior National Teams without having had extensive experience of International youth competition.
Even the Womens senior team itself has had to be patient and accept the piecemeal approach of a Federation having to work with one hand tied behind its back due to resource limitations. This year, it is their ‘turn' to benefit from the slim pickings the Federation can offer and after a period of absence from the competitive scene, they are back for 2010.
However, far from being all doom and gloom, there is genuine optimism that the future of womens basketball in Albania is bright and progress is being made and this will continue. Having had to be content with participation in the Mediterranean Games last year, the Women can now look forward to testing their progression from a Division C campaign back in 2008.
Not surprisingly, the Women are raring to go with the challenge of Division B match-ups against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Luxemburg and Switzerland all lying in wait. It will be tough but being competitive is their main ambition at this stage.
Meanwhile on the domestic front, Albania has just as many womens clubs as mens competing in the senior national league and Korab Llazani is hoping to build on all of these positives.
The next natural step, according to the Federation Secretary General is participation at U18 National Team level - if resources can be stretched that far.
"As far as concerning the women going back to participate in Division B is concerned, it is considered a significant challenge for us and is accompanied by a desire to ensure the participation of women at the U18 level."
"All this will hopefully be based on the results of the current work being done with the younger age groups right now such as the U16's and those currently at school level."
"This is the most important challenge we are facing and it requires not only infrastructural support of human resources but also an economical bill which is, as yet, not totally covered."
"We really hope to be able to find a solution to these problems gradually, in order to fulfil our desire to fully implement our project and realise the ambitions of the Federation."
"In the Albanian league right now we actively play eight womens clubs whose
results feature prominently on our website and while everyone is working to improve their level, they practice regularly and their development and participation with the clubs is a whole year activity."
The return to Division B by the Women is something that has been fully endorsed by the star of the senior Mens team Ersid Ljuca who is delighted to see the prospect of potential progress.
He explained, "I think is important for the players to have a stronger championship for both men and women and by playing in Division B too, the women will have more opportunities to show their qualities and improve their skills in order to reach a higher level."
While Ljuca is only too happy to lend his support to the Women, he has his own business to take care of when it comes to his own Division B campaign later this year and the mission of improving on their efforts last time.
In 2009, the Albanian men only managed a couple of wins and will be hoping to build on this having been drawn against Sweden, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Romania this time around. Ljuca however isn't interested in taking small steps - he is demanding his team reach for the top and raise their expectations and ambitions.
"We could have had more chances for the last season in Division B, if only we had shown more motivation and concentration when we played the weaker teams like Cyprus and Romania."
"At home we played very well against better teams like Switzerland and Belarus so I think we need to concentrate on playing hard during every game no matter who it is against. Only then the better results will come."
"For this next Division B, we are expecting to have a better team and we are going to prepare ourselves better for these games."
"Like I said before, we have shown we can play very well when we have more motivation and concentration, so I think for this season, we can be a big surprise and possibly even get to first place in the group!"
Ljuca was the shining light for the team last time out and enjoyed some big numbers and it will be tough coming up against the likes of Sweden who could enjoy the services of players such as NBA star rookie Jonas Jerebko.
Nevertheless, nothing daunts the fearless Ljuca who has been brought up on the game and travelled enough since childhood just to appreciate the fruits of the game and what can be harvested from sheer hard work.
"I grow up in Montenegro where we had a very big school for basketball and since then I have travelled to play for many teams in many locations."
"I started with Loncen-Cetinje then went to Buducnost, Pristina-Kosovo, Saudi-Arabia, Romania, FYR of Macedonia and at present, I am playing in Lebanon in a very strong championship with some very good players."
"Every time I play for my club or my country, I feel it is important to get big numbers if possible and also be a good team player."
"You must always play with the heart and give all your best all the time in everything you do. It is the same in life too because only like this, you can really help your team and be recognised and appreciated as a professional player."
The pragmatic and hard-working approach of Ljuca is certainly impressive and just the type of attitude required for everyone involved in trying to improve basketball in Albania. For when faced with these kind of challenges, being pragmatic is an absolute necessity.
With that in mind, spare a thought for the Federation when it comes to the tricky topic of Albanian born Ermal Kuqo who famously turned down the opportunity to play for his country of birth in favour of Turkey a few years ago.
As if that in itself wasn't enough of a disappointment, the player rubbed salt into the wounds by later stating in an interview that he felt the Albanian Government and Federation didn't care about being represented well by its athletes.
It is a comment that still rankles slightly in Tirana with Llazani explaining, "Regarding Ermal Kuqo - what he states is his own personal opinion and he does not have a clear view over the financial possibilities the ABF owns."
"The ABF actually has in its possession, only 90 000 Euros, accorded, for its activities, the same figure has been available the previous year."
The frustration of Kuqo is matched by the Federation themselves who are no less frustrated at not yet being able to deliver services which match their ambition and passion for the game. Over time, that situation will hopefully change as they try their best to play catch-up with their neighbours in the region.
However for now, reality bites and pragmatism remains very much a word worth remembering.