U17 National Team makes Solomon Islands proud

The year is 2018 and Solomon Islands are ready to host the U16 OFC Championship at its main venue, the Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara. The expectations of the local team are high: would it be possible for the Solomon Islands boys to qualify for their country for the first football FIFA tournament ever? The two finalists in the competition would advance to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which was to be held in Peru at that time. The Solomon Islands were not in an easy group: Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Zealand – the local side would have to fight hard to reach the semi-finals.

The theory was tough for the locals – but not the practice: Raphael Lea’i‘s four goals put Solomon Islands well ahead of Papua New Guinea in the opening game – Chris Satu added another for Solomon Islands to bring the qualifying campaign into fashion. The most shocking result of Oceania football since the 2016 OFC Nations Cup came in Solomon Islands’ second group match, this time against regional powerhouse New Zealand. The Lawson Tama Stadium saw a fantastic performance by the local boys against – they razed New Zealand to the ground with a surprising 5-0 win; a brace from Raphael Lea’i and a goal each for Maxwell Keana, Leon Kofana and Javin Wae made Solomon Islands believe they could qualify. To end the group, Solomon Islands took the lead of the group with another 5-0 win over Vanuatu – alredy the best ever campaign of Solomon Islands in the tournament – and this time counting on a brace from the team’s captain, Charles Mani.

The deciding match whether Solomon Islands would participate in the U17 World Cup or not was against Fiji. Many spectators watched the game in the stands and saw Charles Mani’s double and Raphael Lea’i’s goal in injury time, which earned Solomon Islands a 3-1 win over Fiji to qualify for their first-ever football FIFA tournament. Despite the fantastic campaign, Solomon Islands were unable to win the competition in the grand final as they faced New Zealand once again – although they had won 5-0 in the group stage, the final was much more difficult, with a 0-0 win after extra time. Much to the chagrin of the locals, only Derrick Taebo lost his penalty in the shootout and New Zealand took regional glory.

Solomon Islands banned from next U16 Championship - Football in ...
Solomon Islands U16 team – OFC Media

A fantastic performance – 18 goals in the tournament and only one goal conceded – prompted Solomon Islands to celebrate their first ever participation in a FIFA football tournament. 2019 was the year in which all the magic was to happen. Once again, Brazil stood in the way of Solomon Islands’ footballing history – Peru decided not to host the tournament and their South American neighbours took take responsibility for hosting the FIFA U17 World Cup.

Despite the celebrations, Solomon Islands’ participation in their first-ever global football tournament was threatened as the OFC questioned the availability of player Chris Satu. After investigations, it was determined that the player was overaged to play in the U16 tournament. The OFC and FIFA decided to allow Solomon Islands to participate in the competition despite the case; Maxwell Keana was later also investigated and the OFC confirmed another case of age manipulation which resulted in Solomon Islands being banned from participating in the next OFC U16 Championship.

But it was time to prepare and go ahead – Solomon Islands team played friendly tournaments against European teams in their way to the competition. The Pacific Islanders found out their group in the FIFA U17 World Cup would be very tough: Italy, Mexico and Paraguay – it would be certainly a great experience for the young boys.

Their first game was against Italy – the OFC representatives held the European powerhouse for 24 minutes as Wilfried Gnonto scored the Italians’ first goals. Despite all the boys’ efforts, the game ended in a 5-0 defeat. Solomon Islands had the opportunity to play against players from the youth academies of teams such as Juventus and Inter Milan in their debut in the FIFA football tournament.

Solomon Islands vs Paraguay – Preview – Oceania Football Center
Solomon Islands in Brazil before the match against Italy – FIFA

The second game was also tough, with Solomon Islands taking on Paraguay and unable to go three minutes without conceding a goal. Many defensive errors led to a poor performance by the young side as the South Americans scored seven goals to win their first game in the tournament. The group’s final match was against Mexico in Cariacica (ES), and once again, many defensive errors meant that the Islanders conceded a goal in the second minute of the match. The Mexicans would qualify for the knockout rounds with a strong 8-0 win. Despite the result, it was the game in which Solomon Islands came closest to scoring – after a free kick the ball was offered to Leon Kofana in front of goal, the defender was unlucky when the ball hit the post. Solomon Islands conceded a total of 20 goals in the tournament and were unable to score a goal that would have been historic.

Despite the results, this was the first step in the development of the sport in a football-loving nation – much remains to be done to continue the process. Players such as Leon Kofana and Raphael Lea’i are special players who can lead Solomon Islands on their path of football development in the years to come. Their participation was historic – and has certainly inspired younger generations to get involved in the beautiful game.

This article is part of the series ‘Brazil and Oceania: a Football connection‘.

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