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Raphael Le'ai, an artist in football and futsal

Raphael Le'ai has enlightened the OFC U-16 Championship, leading the Solomon Islands to the final of the tournament and qualifying his team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. And yet, Le'ai is first of all a Futsal player who also drives his club (FC Marist) and the national team to the summit. Let us tell you his story.

Raphael Le'ai during the game between Solomon Islands U-16 and Papua New Guinea U-16

Photos courtesy of OFC/phototek

Fabrice Deschamps
From Amsterdam

It’s injury time in the OFC U-16 final between New Zealand and the Solomon Islands on 22 September. The Katukatus are awarded a penalty. Raphael Le’ai, eight goals so far, walks to the spot, shoots to his left and... Alex Paulsen stopped the ball!

A few seconds later, the final whistle blows and it is time for a penalty shootout. Which Solomon is going to lose, ensuring the All Whites win their seventh continental title in a row in this age category.

Le’ai, who had basically done everything perfectly since the beginning of the competition, impressing everybody with his pace, his skills and his efficiency, missed what might have been the most important shot in the history of Solomon Islands football.

However unfortunate it is for Le’ai, it does diminish anything from the young kid's performance. Especially knowing his story. Le’ai plays for Marist FC, a... futsal club in Solomon Islands. "I started playing futsal when I was a 12-year-old, I played with KOSSA and then I played at school", explained Le’ai to mycujoo.

Naturally gifted with a silky left foot, he was very quickly noticed and integrated into the U-17 futsal national team. "I played, trained hard with the boys and I was selected for a trial, which lead me to the national U-17 futsal team. And just recently we qualified for the Youth Olympic tournaments in Argentina!"

What Le’ai forgets to say about these qualifiers is that he scored an amazing amount of 35 goals for his team... Which earned him, obviously, a very special spot in this squad. "Well, Raphael is our pivot up front and I am so happy to see him continue his hunger for goals. I want to see him improve more because he is a very important player for us" said Stanley Puairana, the Futsal national team coach.

And this extraordinary performance then pushed the Solomon Islands national team coaches to consider him, and call him, for the U-16 football championship at home, this month. "It’s a really big boost for the under-16 team, Rafa is a big name for us now. He is a futsal player so we have been working really hard with him due to the change of code. Switching from futsal to football is not easy, but Raphael is a hard-working boy so he should be a player to watch in this tournament", announced Stanley Waita, the U-16 team coach.

And the wonder boy has certainly not failed to live up to the hopes he had created. In this tournament, with zero experience at 11-aside football, he scored eight goals in five games and most importantly maybe, created a lot of chances for his teammates, putting all the defences in pure panic. Incidently, he won both the Golden ball and Golden Boot of the tournament. "In Futsal, the pitch is smaller than in football, so it is quite a different game. I want to be as efficient in football that I am in Futsal, but it’s hard! I am trying though!", he says. To be honest, if he finds it hard but still nails eight goals in five games, there is a good chance everybody will be happy with this...

Now the boy is certainly a hero in the Solomon Islands, having qualified the U-16 team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, in Peru next year, and is flying out to Argentina to play the Youth Olympics with the Futsal team. But Rafa, who wants to become a professional player, keeps his head on his shoulders and stays humble. "I am happy and proud to have helped the team qualify for the World Cup. And personally, I am very happy too, it’s been a very special moment to qualify."

Relive the OFC U-16 championship