TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Thousands of young men haunt this dilapidated capital's sidewalks and cheap coffee shops, betting on soccer matches and trading dreams of life in another country.

Four years after Albania began opening up _ its borders as well as four decades of rigid Communist rule _ the nation is struggling to keep its work force at home.

The numbers speak for themselves.

_Officially unemployment is running at 16 percent but most Albanians suspect it's closer to 50 percent.

_Nearly half of the known unemployed in this nation of 3 million are aged 15 to 24 _ evidence of Albania's tradition of large families and improved health conditions under Communist rule.

_An estimated 15 percent of the work force are believed to have gone abroad since early 1991, when Albania relaxed strict border controls as it began moving from a one-party regime to a multiparty democracy.

The world knows these lean, desperate youths from the painful images of their sudden mass attempts to escape their country's grinding poverty.

They have jammed trains to Germany and hung like grapes from every conceivable handhold on rusty ships crossing to Italy. Hundreds of thousands have scrambled across treacherous mountain passes to Greece, the closest gateway to the alluring West. Many have died trying.

Alban Mema, 25, has walked into Greece four times, working illegally there as a house painter until he gets expelled. His brother also is there illegally.

``Things are difficult here,'' he said. ``I intend to go back to Greece.''

In cities, one in three Albanian families has one or more member working abroad. With 1994 foreign investment just $140 million and only $500,000 available for job training, foreign employment is vital.

Greek officials estimate up to 300,000 Albanians work illegally in Greece. They toil on farms, in hotels or on construction sites for about half what a Greek would get but still earn many times the $50 an average Albanian earns each month if working.

These illegal migrants depend on Albania's friendship with its richer neighbor. When relations suffer, so do they.

Greece has expelled more than 70,000 Albanians since August after an Albanian court tried and convicted five ethnic Greeks of spying for Athens. Greece also blocked vital European Union aid and cut all contacts until a Tirana court suspended the sentences.

Greek Foreign Minister Carolos Papoulias, on a fence-mending visit to Albania earlier this month, proposed an agreement regulating the seasonal employment of Albanians in his country.

``It would be a wonderful thing,'' said Elira Agolli of the World Bank in Albania. ``If the figures are correct ... with half of Albania living on their money, we can't afford to have tension with our neighbors.''

Greece is considering permits for up to 120,000 Albanians.

In 1993, the World Bank estimated remittances from abroad totaled at least $200 million, 18 percent of Albania's gross domestic product. Actual figure, it says, could be much larger.

The money finances the consumer goods and cars that have proliferated in dirt-poor Albania. Workers also learn a different mentality and skills abroad, and generate some jobs at home.

``They brought back money and want to fix their houses, and that is why there is more work now,'' said Astrid Memeti, 29. He spent three years on the eastern Greek island of Kos, learning to lay tiles, until police expelled him in September.

Although Memeti has work in Tirana, he wants to return to Greece legally. ``The aim is not just to earn my bread,'' he said. ``It is to live better.''

Some Albanians say the bright lights and better salaries abroad ultimately lose their luster.

Electrician Plato Ilo, 28, worked as an unskilled laborer in Athens for three years, earning $430 per month. He came home late last month, weary of living alone and fearing the police.

``Home is home,'' he said. ``You can make money in Greece and live there for five or 10 years. But you can't live there forever.''