Solomon Islands head coach Felipe Vega-Arango says the future is bright for the nation’s senior men’s team after an impressive showing in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Oceania Qualifiers.
Over the two-week period, the Solomon Islands secured a 2-0 win over the Cook Islands, a 3-1 triumph over Tahiti and a thrilling 3-2 victory over Papua New Guinea in the semi-final.
They fell at the last hurdle, losing 5-0 to New Zealand in the final, with the All Whites subsequently booking their place in the intercontinental play-off v Costa Rica in June to decide who goes to the FIFA World Cup 2022™ later this year.
However, despite missing out on that opportunity, Vega-Arango believes the future of football for the Solomon Islands is looking promising.
“There is a really young generation,” said the head coach after the final.
“I think we were the youngest team in the tournament. We have 17-year-old boys playing the game, people with no international experience yet so I think the future for Solomons football looks bright.”
The head coach is not exaggerating when he speaks of the current squad’s lack of experience at a senior level.
Of the 25-man squad that headed to Qatar, just five were 30 or over with nine 21 or under. Four of those are just teenagers, three of whom, namely Javin Wae, Leon Kofana and Raphael Lea’i, scored in the nation’s famous 5-0 win over New Zealand at the OFC U-16 Championship 2018.
Lea’i, who was the top-scorer at the home 2018 U-16 competition with eight goals, also shone in Qatar.
The teenage forward scored four goals, including a hat-trick against Tahiti, across the competition and was Solomon Islands’ biggest threat in the final against New Zealand, testing Stefan Marinovic twice late on.
Indeed, before Chris Wood stretched clear with his fifth goal of the tournament in the final, the recently transferred Newcastle United striker and Lea’i were joint top-scorers in the competition.
His head coach is in no doubt about his talents, suggesting a professional career is on the cards.
“He is 19-years-old, naturally gifted, a wonderful boy,” Vega-Arango said to the press after the final defeat.
“If nobody talks to him to play professional football it is because these people are missing something.”
It is not just his coach who is excited about Lea’i’s future.
“He is different,” said Solomon Islands captain Micah Lea’alafa.
“That kid can go far. I believe in him and he has a bright future ahead of him. I am proud of him.”
The future of Solomon Islands men’s football will be on show later this year when the OFC U-16 Championship 2022 in Fiji and OFC U-19 Championship in Samoa take place.