Leai intent on opening Solomon Islands’ account

  • Raphael Leai represented Solomon Islands at 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games

  • Invited to a trial by an Argentinian club afterwards

  • Solomon Islands star man aims to score in their final match at Brazil 2019

Raphael Leai made his first visit to South America a year ago, to lead Solomon Islands out in the futsal tournament at the Buenos Aires 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games. Twelve months on, the midfielder has returned to the continent, this time to wear the No10 jersey for his country at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Brazil 2019™.

Leai has been his side’s leading performer in their two games to date, against Italy and Paraguay in Group F, which ended in respective 5-0 and 7-0 defeats. Having shown his individual skills in both matches, he is keeping a smile on his face despite his team’s difficulties on the pitch, and is dreaming of finding the back of the net when the Pacific Islanders take on Mexico in their last game in Vitoria this Sunday.

“I’d love to get on the scoresheet against Mexico,” Leai told FIFA.com. “That’s all I want: to score a goal.”

An Argentinian adventure

Getting that goal would make Leai’s trip to Brazil every bit as special as his visit to Argentina a year ago. The Solomon Islands player delighted the Argentinians with his skills and potential, so much so that after the tournament a local club invited him along to a trial.

“Yes, that happened, though I couldn’t do it in the end because of my age, because I was under 17,” confirmed Leai. “I’m only 16 now and it’s very difficult because of the international transfer regulations.”

In that futsal tournament in Argentina, the midfield man played in a 9-1 defeat to Brazil and then starred in Solomon Islands’ 10-4 loss to Russia, scoring all his side’s goals. After his experiences at Brazil 2019, however, he has no doubts about which sport he'd like to pursue.

“I play both games but I want to be a professional footballer,” said Leai, who currently represents Scots College in Wellington, New Zealand, where he is also studying.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - OCTOBER 10:  Ilia Fedorov #3 of Russial challenges Raphael Leai of Solomon Islands in the Men's Group B match between Russia and Solomon Islands during the Buenos Aires Youth Olympics 2018 at Cenard on October 10, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  (Photo by Martin Rose - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Going the distance

Brazil 2019 is Solomon Islands’ first appearance at an 11-a-side FIFA tournament. Runners-up at the OFC U-16 Championship, they suffered the same problem in their defeat to Italy as they did a few days later against Paraguay.

Competitive in the first half of both games, not least against Italy in their Group F opener – when they had a goal disallowed for a foul committed on the Italian keeper – they have struggled to keep pace after the restart.

Against the Italians they shipped two goals in the final 15 minutes and conceded three in the same timeframe to the Paraguayans.

“Paraguay and Italy are better than us in physical terms," Leai said. "We don’t have the physique and the fitness they have and we know that’s where they have the edge over us.”

A fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, Leai is nevertheless hoping his Brazil experience finishes on a positive note and is reluctant for it to end: “The standard of play here is very high. It makes me want to stay and not go home.”

BRASILIA, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 28: Raphael Leai of Solomon Islands struggles for the ball with Franco Tongya of Italy during the FIFA U-17 Men's World Cup Brazil 2019 group F match between Solomon Islands and Italy at Valmir Campelo Bezerrao Stadium on October 28, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)