Albania captain Altin Lala is hoping it will be ‘third time lucky' for him as he attempts to lead his side to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ following unsuccessful qualification campaigns in 2002 and 2006.
Arie Haan's charges currently lie second-bottom of their European qualifying group for South Africa 2010 after a bitter 1-0 defeat in the crunch match against Hungary last Sarurday. A promising 0-0 draw with Sweden followed by a convincing 3-0 win over Malta got their campaign off to a promising start, but since then the Albanians have only managed two points from four matches, failing to score a single goal.
But all is not lost. Portugal, Sweden and Albania themselves are still in contention on six points and trail joint leaders Denmark and Hungary, who are both on ten. That said, Albania are the only side in the top five to have already played six matches.
Experienced defensive midfielder Lala made his comeback for the national team against Hungary after several weeks out injured, but even his inspirational presence was not enough to prevent a defeat on home turf. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com ahead of his country's vital clash with group leaders Denmark on Wednesday, the 33-year-old, who has spent the past 11 years at German club Hannover 96, explains how he is eager to make the most of his last chance to qualify for a FIFA World Cup.
FIFA.com: After several weeks out injured, you're back in action and made your international return as captain against Hungary at the weekend. What's it like to be back out on the pitch?
Altin Lala: Every footballer wants to be playing matches, so of course I'm delighted to be back.
In FIFA World Cup qualifying, Albania have slipped to second-bottom in Group 1. How do you rate your chances of qualifying for South Africa 2010?
Our chances are looking slim, to be honest, especially after the draw in Malta and the defeat against Hungary.
Following a respectable 0-0 draw in Portugal, you could only manage a goalless draw in Malta and suffered 1-0 loss against Hungary. How do you explain such inconsistency?
In the match against Malta we were missing some important players and were unable to find our usual rhythm. We did quite well in the first half, but then petered out in the second.
What needs to change in order for Albania to make it to South Africa next summer?
[Laughs] We need to turn the table on its head...
The Albanian national team has never taken part in a FIFA World Cup or a UEFA European Championships. How significant would it be if you were to make it to South Africa 2010?
Of course it would be a momentous achievement, but the competition in Europe is very strong at the moment. In fairness, though, we have definitely made progress over the past few years.
What is stopping Albania from being up there with the world's best?
That's a long way off. Our domestic league just isn't strong enough and we aren't producing enough quality players.
How important is football back home?
It's hugely important. We Albanians are crazy about football - most homes have football on the TV all the time, day and night.
All going well, you should overtake Foto Strakosha this year as the most capped Albanian international of all time. What would that mean to you?
It would be a great honour for me, but I still have two games to go.
Is there anything in your own game that you are still unhappy with? Can you still improve at 33?
[Laughs] I still need to learn how to score goals!
Your club, Hannover 96, are currently in the bottom third of the Bundesliga table. Why have things not quite gone to plan this season?
There are several reasons for that. To start with, we've had an ongoing problem with injuries. Several first team regulars are on the treatment table as we speak, so it's been difficult to find any kind of consistency or rhythm.
You've been at Hannover since 1998, but your contract expires in the summer. Will you be staying or is it time to move on?
I'd like to stay, but you never know what might happen in football.
Have you ever thought of moving clubs and, if so, is there one in particular you'd still like to play for?
There have been offers from elsewhere from time to time, but I feel at home in Hannover now and I want to finish my career here.
How long more do you hope to play both international and club football and what are your plans for afterwards?
I would like to play for another two years and then I'm going to move into the business world. I'll be opening my first business in Albania in partnership with a chemist over the next few weeks. Hopefully that will be just the start of it.
What can Hannover 96 still achieve this season and who is your tip to win the Bundesliga?
Hamburg will win the league. At Hannover, we need to get ourselves away from the relegation zone as quickly as possible and then concentrate on next season. Hopefully next year will bring more success.