x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The Little Leaguers with a big dream

The Dubai Falcons All Stars train in Poland to go all the way in the Little League Baseball World Series.

Last year, the Dubai Falcons All Stars fell to Saudi Arabia, the last obstacle they needed to clear to win the Middle East regional championship and a berth in the Little League Baseball World Series. This year, the All Stars mean to go all the way. Jan Ciosek reports from Kutno, Poland A town in central Poland with a population of about 50,000 may not seem the most exciting spot to visit, but for a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys from Dubai, the city of Kutno is the most important place in the world.

It is here that they are fighting for a place in the biggest event in the world of junior baseball, next month's Little League Baseball World Series to be held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The Saudi team, which beat Dubai last year, are the strong favourites to win this year's qualifying tournament for the Middle East and Africa. The Dubai Falcons All Stars are made up of the best of the best: 11 boys chosen from more than 350 by two experienced coaches, Mahmood Panjwani and Peter Giles, who was previously a baseball coach in Australia.

More and more children are playing Little League baseball in the Emirates every year, with more than 400 currently involved. The best of them are now in Kutno. "We have a United Nations team," Mr Panjwani said. "The team manager is Peter Giles from Australia. I was born in Pakistan, but I'm a US citizen. Our other coach is Jose Carrizo from Panama. "Also, players are very international, including my son Danyel and Peter's son Jack.

"We have players from the United States, Canada, South Africa, even four from Japan, and three of them don't speak English, so we use the fourth as a translator." Regardless of nationality, Mr Panjwani said, everyone has made the same commitment to the team. "These boys have given up their vacations to play baseball, because they love this game so much. "And they are so proud of representing Dubai. It's a big honour for all of us, and we'll do our best to qualify for World Series."

The All Stars came to Kutno three days ago and have been practising at the Piszek Stadium, the biggest baseball venue in Poland. Their target is simple: qualify for the first time for the finals in the United States. Last year they came close, reaching the final of the qualifying event, only to be beaten, 5-0, by Saudi Arabia. Now making their fourth appearance in the qualifying event, the All Stars are desperate to reach the World Series and - dare they dream? - perhaps unseat Waipio of Hawaii as world champions.

"Last year, we lost to Saudi Arabia in the deciding match. We were one win from winning the championship of our region and representing Middle East in Little League World Series," Mr Panjwani said. "Saudi Arabia has great facilities, while we don't. We have to train on hot days, because we don't have floodlights at our venue in Nad al Sheba. "But this year, with the leadership of Peter Giles, we're finally going to win the championship. We are determined to do better then last year, when we were so close. We also believe that the opposing teams are maybe not as good as last year. We feel we have a great chance, and we are going to take it."

Yesterday, the Dubai team trained twice - once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The tournament director Beata Kulesza said the All Stars "are training really hard, I think much harder than other teams". But before turning their attention to serious training, the All Stars did some sightseeing. "We have been to Warsaw, to Krakow," said Mr Panjwani. "It's a beautiful country, and people are so friendly."

But the relaxing part of the trip is now over. "For all the kids from Middle East, the most interesting thing in Poland is the baseball," Ms Kulesza said. "First of all, they are training and playing matches; later they are talking about baseball; and after that they are watching other people play." "Who wants to win a championship?" screamed Mr Giles during yesterday's morning training session. But the boys already seem highly motivated: for every ball thrown by a coach, two or three boys run for it, shouting: "My ball, my ball!"

The boys from Dubai are treating every ball as if it will decide whether they go to the Little League Baseball World Series. * The National