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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Fields of Dreams

Masami Ukon

Sep. 1, 2016

A group of young baseball players from Africa has been training in Japan in the hopes of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Baseball will return to the Olympics in Tokyo, 4 years from now. The sport is popular in East Asia and North and South America, but not so much in the rest of the world. But with baseball returning to the upcoming games, that might be changing.

This summer, 10 promising young baseball players arrived in Japan for an adventure. Aged 15 to 21, most of them originate from the West African country of Burkina Faso.

People in Burkina Faso started becoming serious about baseball in the last 10 years, after a government campaign to promote the sport. But the country is short of instructors and facilities so the athletes travelled to Japan for more advanced training.

"I want to learn everything about baseball while I'm in Japan," says Sanfo Moussa, who is one of the players.

Yuta Deai organized the team's trip to Japan by raising support and funding. The 33-year-old Japanese has been helping spread baseball in Burkina Faso.

Deai went to the country in 2008 and spent 2 years there teaching baseball at the request of Burkina Faso's government. Children showed interest in it right away but baseball was little-known in the region, and it proved a challenge to gather support from parents.

"In the beginning, everyone was critical of baseball in the beginning. Some parents doubted money could be made just by playing with a ball," Deai says.

Deai didn't give up. Even after his 2-year term was over, he sent the children baseball-related items and invited them to Japan for training.

"The children would tell me that they wanted to improve at the sport, and become professional baseball players someday. I decided to take it upon myself to figure out how to make their dreams come true," Deai says.

Kafando Hamidou, 18, is one of the athletes Deai has been working with, and he's the team's top player.

"If I can become a professional player, I can show my younger teammates that their dreams can come true as long as they work hard and don't give up. I believe I can also become an inspiration to others who play baseball," he says.

Hamidou had a chance to practice with one of his childhood friends, Sanfo Lassina, who is the country's first professional baseball player to join a Japanese team. Watching him fulfill his aspirations was a huge motivation for Hamidou.

"Hamidou and the other players have shown a huge improvement. They're much better than they were last year, and may soon surpass me," Lassina says.

"Lassina worked really hard to get where he is now. I was very impressed when I saw him playing in Japan -- I can tell that his skills have advanced a lot. I want to support Lassina, and I hope to succeed like him as soon as possible," Hamidou says.

Hamidou and his team were given a chance to show off their skills. They played against the Kochi Fighting Dogs -- the professional minor-league team that Lassina plays for.

The Fighting Dogs' manager, Norihiro Komada, used to be one of Japan's top players. He wants Hamidou and his teammates to know how challenging professional baseball is.

"My players are feeling a lot of pressure from me. I told them to compete in a way that demonstrates the high level of Japanese baseball," Komada says.

The game started in a tense atmosphere. Hamidou hit a single and his teammates work hard to extend their lead. But the professionals won't give in and errors pile up.

The African team fights until the end but it suffers a huge loss, at 16 to 0. Still, Hamidou and his teammates aren't discouraged -- they renew their determination to reach their goal.

"I will practice harder so that I can compete on an equal footing with top-level teams from countries like Japan and the United States. If Japanese people can become great baseball players, so can we," Hamidou says.

With 4 years to go until the Tokyo Olympics, the young African athletes are striving to improve their game so that they can return to Japan and fulfill their dreams.