As Kosovo’s senior women’s team gears up for its first European tournament, it can take valuable lessons from another ex-Yugoslav country.
A photograph shot in 2003 shows a women’s basketball team that achieved a result not repeated in Kosovo before or since.
Universiteti played that year in the Trocal League – a competition for mostly ex-Yugoslav countries – finished third in the regular season, and made it to the playoffs.
Elvira Dushku was part of that team and the photo is proudly displayed in her office. Today she is secretary general of the Kosovo Basketball Federation.
“We have this very big problem, young women quitting basketball at the age of 18 or 20. We just couldn’t assemble enough quality players for a functioning team,” Dushku says, underlining perhaps the biggest problem for women’s basketball in Kosovo.
Although a member of the international basketball federation FIBA since 2015, Kosovo’s senior women’s team is due to compete this year for the first time in an official FIBA competition, the Women’s European Championship for Small Countries, taking place in July in Nicosia, Cyprus.
When asked why women quit basketball, Dushku, having played herself till the age of 25, says the main reasons are “pretty obvious.”
“Only a handful of players in the top-tier league get paid for playing basketball, so not a lot of career prospects,” says Dushku. “Sports are in a difficult financial situation and women’s sports especially. There are only two basketball clubs in Kosovo that can be called professional. They hire professional players, practice every day, and compete for titles and trophies. The rest are semi-professional at best.”
Lessons From Slovenia
As a country with similar demographics (around 2 million inhabitants) and a similar sports tradition as part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia can teach Kosovo a thing or two regarding women’s basketball, keeping up the numbers, and supporting the national team.
Tone Krump is a former high-ranking functionary at the Basketball Federation of Slovenia, a long-time basketball coach who has been around the sport for decades.
“After the breakup of Yugoslavia, from 1991 to 1999, almost everyone was focused on men’s basketball and our numbers with women were very poor,” he says.
“Then, in 2004, the professional council [of the federation], headed by me at the time, came up with a project and we insisted on four key points: ensuring the same treatment for the women’s and men’s national teams; recruiting new coaches to work specifically with the national team’s programs for young women; asking for help from FIBA; and establishing an annual international [women’s] basketball camp in Slovenia.”
“Equal treatment means just that,” Krump continues. If men stay in four-star or five-star hotels with top-class fitness facilities, massage and spa centers, and carefully selected menus, women should as well.
“If the men’s coaching staff consists of a head coach, assistants, strength coaches, physios, and doctors, and they have the best equipment at their disposal, women will have the same treatment. … This was not easy back then. In fact I had great difficulties with implementing equal treatment, but it proved to be the best decision we took on women’s basketball,” he says.
Slovenia’s national women’s team still gets the same treatment as the men’s team in terms of training and playing conditions. That came with the help of the national federation as well as FIBA.
Statistics from the Slovenian Basketball Federation for the past five years show a steady number of players making the leap from junior to senior teams or turning professional. Krump underlines another key factor.
“We worked a lot with coaches and ensured that women get the same high-quality basketball programs as men, by developing specific programs,” he says – not only at the national level but in schools and clubs as well. The national federation financed those programs.
So, is it all down to good coaching and equal treatment for men and women?
Krump says that as far as the federation goes, those are the key factors, while the rest depends on the clubs. “In Slovenia we have one club of some international repute – ZKK Celje. However, for the last 10 years, a lot of players managed to transfer from Celje to top leagues in Czechia, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and other much more lucrative markets. Girls realize that there is a market if they dedicate themselves to professional basketball.”
Teja Oblak is a star in the women’s Euroleague for the Czech team USK Praha and for the Slovenian national team. She confirms Krump’s words. “I think they treat us kind of the same. They are really giving us everything we need at the moment. If I compare it to years ago, when we could feel the difference between the women’s and men’s teams, I would say that now we really don’t need to worry about anything else, just basketball.”
It Started With a Half-Marathon
In Kosovo, equal treatment in sports was symbolically initiated by former Sports Minister Memli Krasniqi a short time after he took office in 2012. He started by awarding equal prizes to the men’s and women’s winners of the Pristina half-marathon.
After runners, martial artists blazed the trail to better treatment for women athletes. State bodies significantly boosted support for Kosovo’s women judokas in the period from 2013 to 2015, culminating in Majlinda Kelmendi’s gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics (she previously competed for Albania). It was the success of women judokas that nudged the Sports Ministry to propose an ultimately successful law ensuring equal financial reward for men and women athletes competing at the highest level. The same law ensures equal treatment for athletes in training for international sporting events for both star performers and promising new talent, regardless of gender.
The latest indicator of strong state backing for women’s sport came early in April, when newly elected President Vjosa Osmani received Kelmendi as her first official guest, the same day she was sworn in. In her speech to parliament after lawmakers elected her, Osmani encouraged all aspiring young women to follow their dreams just as Kelmendi did and pledged her personal backing.
Kosovo lags far behind Slovenia, however, in one critical metric: the number of girl and women basketball players. Slovenia consistently counts five times more women basketballers than Kosovo. Quantity is necessary for the quality to rise up, says one longtime player and now coach.
Shemsije Stublla was born in Kosovo and played most of her basketball there during the ’80s as one of the “golden generation” of KB Universiteti in the Yugoslav top division.
In 1989 she was playing in Slovenia for KK Triglav Kranj and with the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovenia became her new country. Stublla played in the Slovenian league and even European competitions with teams from Slovenia in the ’90s. She currently coaches a girl’s team in Kranj, a town some half an hour’s drive from the capital, Ljubljana.
Now in her mid-50s, Stublla regularly plays in veteran tournaments, and remains as enthusiastic as ever about basketball.
“Public schools, school tournaments, PE [physical education] teachers, and the PE curriculum are super important factors,” she insists. “In Slovenia there is a lot of competition among sports. Kids get lured to take up soccer and basketball, but the national sport is skiing and other sports are on the rise as well. This means that we have to ‘eyeball’ talent and make our sport attractive to kids.”
Youth as a Key Indicator
FIBA’s choice of Pristina to host the 2019 under-20 European women’s championship, B division, just four years after Kosovo became a full member of the federation, proved to be a major boost to the sport.
Coverage of the event by local media was extensive, even though the Kosovo team never had a chance, finishing last in the 12-team tournament. The exposure culminated with a live national broadcast of the final.
One member of that team, Astera Tuhina, born in 2004, started to play basketball at the age of six and played in boys’ junior leagues for almost a decade in Kosovo.
Tuhina is regarded as a basketball wunderkind. Federation head Dushku, a former decent point guard herself, thinks “she is someone we can build our national team around.”
She “is a player that comes around once in a lifetime, and we must do what we can to keep her on our national team,” Dushku adds.
Tuhina currently trains in Spain with Deportivo Promete, where after recently debuting at 16 as the youngest player in the top league, she hopes she will develop to be a top-level professional. But she’s very enthusiastic about Kosovo basketball.
“We need more games and more competition. This year has not been easy because of the lockdowns and the virus, but I look forward to next year and competing with the national team. Everyone dreams of winning with the national team,” she told local media.
Trends in women’s basketball, however, indicate that for girls of Tuhina’s age, the biggest challenge is yet to come. Women quitting basketball in their late teens and early 20s is an issue everywhere in Europe and, so far, there is no clear-cut solution that is applicable everywhere.
A 2016 study funded by FIBA Europe found high dropout rates among women basketball players at all levels. Conversely, countries with the lowest dropout rates recorded the best results in both youth and senior European championships.
Injuries, burnout, the pressure of trying to balance sports and studies, lack of career support, and the social isolation that can affect high-level athletes are some of the reasons women quit basketball at a young age, the study found.
Different Countries, Different Solutions
As noted, Slovenia, with its similar population and shared Yugoslav history, provides a very promising model to guide Kosovo’s efforts to raise the profile of women’s basketball. It is far from perfect, however.
The biggest Slovenian club, Celje, won nine national championships in a row and 16 championships in 20 years. The team racked up more than 120 consecutive wins until its streak finally ended last October, and has dominated in youth competitions as well.
The downside of this hegemony is that with much of the country’s best female players at one club, development of pro ball is choked off in other parts of the country. However, Teja Oblak sees the positives in this. “Celje’s vision is to work with young players and put them in the eye of European clubs. I wouldn’t say there is anything they do extra – just the thing is, they are not afraid to give young players a chance to play important games.”
Noting the differences between the two countries, Dushku comments that in Kosovo, “We need to adapt a model of our own. We can’t copy-paste a solution.”
Lockdowns and Small Nations
Kosovo’s senior women’s team will mark its international debut this summer in FIBA’s tournament for Europe’s lesser basketball powers, to be held in Cyprus starting 20 July. Kosovo’s women will face their counterparts from Gibraltar, Luxembourg, and Cyprus in the group stage of the tournament.
Kosovo’s participation came about because of the pandemic, in a way. The health crisis forced the cancellation of last year’s edition of the tournament. FIBA then opened the application process to countries that had not been chosen for the 2020 tournament, and Kosovo was accepted. The tournament is open to any country that does not compete in the main EuroBasket Women event.
The country is now almost certain to play in back-to-back tournaments since the 2022 edition will go on as planned, and the Kosovo Basketball Federation intends to enter a team.
For women’s basketball in Kosovo, the slowdown on account of the pandemic could prove to be a time to reset and focus. Lessons from Slovenia might just serve as guiding lights in that process.
Kosovo federation head Dushku is feeling buoyant.
Typically, the state allocates around 300,000 euros for all basketball programs, with a fifth of that specifically earmarked for women’s clubs and national teams.
“We got the Sports Ministry to promise us additional money for the next year, and we will do our very best to create proper conditions for the players,” she says. “Having not played in international competitions, I really don’t know how we compare to the opposition, but I look forward to the tournament [in Cyprus] and based on the results there, we will know how much work lies ahead of us in the future.”
Leart Hoxha is a journalist in Kosovo. He is a former secretary general of the Kosovo Basketball Federation and currently serves on the federation board in an honorary role.
All photos are courtesy of the Kosovo Basketball Federation.