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Youth Olympics

Leading marksman Le’ai flying flag for Solomon Islands

(FIFA.com)
Raphael Leai of Solomon Islands celebrates a goal against Russia
© Getty Images
  • Raphael Le'ai, 15, is the men’s competition’s leading scorer
  • Has also made history with Solomon Islands in the 11-a-side game
  • Hoping to excel in futsal and grow with the national team

Raphael Le’ai has a gift for futsal, a sport on the up in Solomon Islands, the leading force in the game in the Oceania region.

His father said as much three years ago, when he convinced Le’ai to pay a visit to the national team’s training centre in Honiara and offer to help out with the training sessions.

“I watched the players, learned from them and then went back to school and did what they did,” Le’ai told FIFA.com after scoring all four of his side’s goals in their defeat to Russia at the Men’s Youth Olympic Futsal Tournament Buenos Aires 2018 on Wednesday.

The 15-year-old is now the competition’s leading marksman with seven goals in three games.

Le’ai has grown accustomed to racking up the goals for his country, having scored 35 of the 64 Solomon Islands managed in their six Buenos Aires 2018 qualifying matches in October 2017. “I just did my job, that’s all,” he said modestly.

His goalscoring feat did not go unnoticed by the coach of the national U-16 football team, who invited Le’ai for a trial. The youngster was unsure. His father less so: “You’ve got a talent for this. Make the most of it!”

Fortunately, Le’ai took that parental advice and made the team, contributing eight goals in the OFC Championships to help Solomon Islands qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2019, which will be the nation’s first ever appearance at a FIFA 11-a-side competition. The competition’s leading scorer, he was also named its outstanding player.

“It wasn’t easy to begin with because the two are very different in terms of space,” explained the teenage striker. “I don’t have any problems now though, not even switching from one to the other. One week I’m doing two days of futsal training and the next three days of football.”

Given the choice, he would prefer to carry on playing both for the rest of his career. His role model happens to be Elliot Ragomo, who figured in the three FIFA Futsal World Cups that Solomon Islands have appeared in to date.

“I’d love to be a futsal star in my country and help the national team to keep on developing,” said Le’ai, who knows how important it is to compete against the best. That is exactly what he is doing in Buenos Aires, where, after defeats in their first three games, Solomon Islands have dropped out of contention for the medals.

“We’re not used to this level, which is why it’s a great experience for me and my team,” said Le’ai, as a phalanx of Argentina fans – who have adopted the Oceania side as their own – waited for the chance to take yet more selfies with him.

“The result matters, but only to a certain point,” added the front man. “Taking on teams like these helps us grow. That’s why we’re happy, even if we’re losing.”

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