The brilliant year of Raphael Le’ai

Every country has its young talents; always lots of expecations are put in their shoulders to turn into superstars in the game. In little nations it might be even harder to deal with the pressure to have the gift to play football: in a football crazy nation – that is yet to achieve big things in football – always there are high expectations in the new generations, hoping that these young players can put the name of their country in another level.

The lack of international exposure, the not ideal infrastructure and sometimes the poor management of governmental bodies – and also the bad management of the player football career – are problems that can make any real talent to be wasted. In big football nations the chances to lose a good talent are low, due the good capabilities and the know-how they developed there – but, unfortunately, through the history of football we could had seem many wasted talents coming from little nations in the sport, most of them due lack of management.

Currently in Oceania one of the hottest prospects for the future is the Solomon Islander Raphael Le’ai, of just 16 years old. The starting years of his footballing career prove the high expectations his country has on him – a good finisher, with a lot of pace and a very smart player on the pitch awakened the interest of foreign clubs. First, in 2018, the young player caught the interest of the Argentinian side Godoy Cruz – but could not keep at the team due FIFA regulations – and in 2019 he was offered a scolarship by the New Zealand side Wellington Phoenix, where he had the opportunity to continue his studies and also play for the Scots College team – school that has a partnership with the Phoenix.

Raphael Le’ai had a stellar performance for his college team in the Sport Premier Youth Football League. He scored 41 goals during the tournament, providing one assist and scoring another in the grand final match of the tournament. The Scots College is known for the development of young talented players in New Zealand; in the team Le’ai played his countryman Leon Kofana also took part as well the U17 New Zealand goalkeeper and captain Alex Paulsen.

Le’ai had his first sparks of the talent shown in the OFC U16 Championship in 2018 held in his home nation. He guided his side to reach the finals and to qualify for the first ever FIFA football tournament Solomon Islands would take part – winning the golden boot and the MVP award of the tournament. In 2019 the biggest moment of his career so far came when he and his teammates travelled to Brazil to play the FIFA U17 World Cup – the Solomon Islands were grouped against important teams: Italy, Paraguay and Mexico.

Le’ai was the most dangerous player of the a Solomon Islands team that lost all three matches conceding 20 goals and scoring none. The striker shown some talent creating difficulties for much more experienced defenses from three established nations at football world stage. Despite the defeats, it was a great opportunity for all Solomon Islanders to showcase their talent and learn from the experience to be playing against teams from other continents.

Le’ai was the most praised player of the team by the Brazilian commentators and was the player who came the closest to score a goal – what would be historical for the Solomon Islanders. The opportunity to play against Italy, Paraguay and Mexico is surely something the talented striker will learn a lot from.

After a warm welcome back by the Solomon Islands fans, Le’ai – currently in school break in New Zealand – opted to continue to play in the his home country. In 2018 he defended the colours of Marist FC, this year he decided to go for Henderson Eels to play the second round of the Telekom S-League, the most important football league in his nation.

The impact of the Solomon Islander in the national league was tremendous: in six matches the 16-year old striker scored thirteen times. Despite the difference of the level of football played in other confederations, it is something really impressive from a teenager to have such an impact in the top-tier league in the country. Le’ai helped Henderson Eels to qualify for the 2020 edition of the OFC Champions League – the team still has very slim chances to win the S-League title in the current edition.

2019 was a year that proved the quality of a still very young player. Le’ai has surely the capabilities to break in professional level and turn into an important player for his country – but it is necessary to understand it has a long way to go. The work-hard mentality praised by many locals on the young player is something that can put him in another level, looking for learning from every experience, from every mistake and understand that in football you need to always keep focused. 2019 proved the talent he has – the following years will say if he can reach all the potential he surely has – and turn into one of the big players of the Oceania Football Confederation.


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