|F.Y.R. of Macedonia had secured their participation in EuroBasket 2011 before the competition's expansion to 24 teams. Yet the Federation's Secretary General, Dejan Lekic, is convinced it was a necessary decision to further popularize the sport around Europe|
The expansion of the EuroBasket to 24 teams is proving to be a great success story already in its first implementation, in Lithuania.
Georgia, in their first EuroBasket ever, made it to the Second Round, Finland is one win away from the Quarter-Finals and F.Y.R. of Macedonia will fight with Russia for the top spot in Group F after booking their ticket to Kaunas before teams as Lithuania, Germany, Turkey, Serbia and Slovenia.
Keeping in mind that EuroBasket veterans like Italy, Croatia, Israel and Latvia didn't even go that far this year underlines just how competitive this tournament is and how small are the gaps in European basketball these days.
The expansion of the EuroBasket and the switch from a two-division system next summer gathers positive feedback from basketball people who are here in Vilnius.
Dejan Lekic, the Secretary General of the F.Y.R of Macedonia Basketball Federation , is one of the most enthusiastic supporters.
"We were one of the teams who qualified to the EuroBasket before the expansion, but we were still very much supportive of this change," he says.
"This is the best way to expand and increase the popularity of basketball throughout Europe.
"We see 24 countries, almost half of Europe, who follow the games and everywhere, even countries where the game is less popular or successful, this competition grabs the attention of people."
For Lekic the positive aspects of the change are clear.
"The separation of the two divisions shut down a big part of European basketball from expanding and becoming more popular.
"When you have all teams in one division it's a bigger celebration of the game and the best way to develop it.
"We will see Spain travel to Romania and Serbia travel to Ukraine and the kids there will get their only chance to see players like Navarro and Teodosic," he offers as an example.
"This is the way to push and develop the sport there."
Lekic isn't the only one supporting the move.
"The exposure basketball gets in our country these days is something that we never had and could have never achieved under the old system," says Vesa Wallden, Secretary General of the Finnish Basketball Federation.
"If you don't play in the EuroBasket you don't get exposure and it's very difficult to increase the popularity of sport this way.
"Our success here for sure will make a difference, and it wouldn't have been possible if the EuroBasket wasn't expanded."
Finland isn't famous for its basketball tradition, but the popularity of the sport is rising in the last years and EuroBasket 2011 will give another great push according to Wallden.
"We joke that Finland is a country that can only excel in sports where you wear a helmet, but here we show we can do well even without one.
"Kids follow the games and now they know who's Petteri Koponen, and not just ice hockey players," he adds and continues to another point.
"In football there's no distinction between the national teams and you see France and Italy play against San Marino and Faroe Islands if they want to qualify.
"There's no reason it won't happen in basketball as well."
Lekic sees another good idea in the welcomed change.
"The separation to two divisions made it almost impossible for so many teams to make it to the EuroBasket when actually the difference in level isn't that big.
"We see now Finland, Georgia and us, three teams who played many years in Division B made it further than classic EuroBasket teams, and without the expansion it wouldn't have been possible," he points out.
"Next time it can be other teams, and this is the beauty of sport.
"Fans don't want to see the same teams over and over again, because at some point it becomes boring.
"You want the some Cinderellas in the tournament. Teams that nobody expected to see and create a good story and a buzz."
With FYR of Macedonia just two wins away from a historical medal and Finland two wins shy from a spot in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the proof that EuroBasket 2011 has helped expanding basketball throughout Europe is clear.