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Lea’alafa’s unforgettable 2016

Micah Lea'alafa representing Auckland City FC at the 2016 OFC Champions League. Image: OFC via Phototek

2016 was quite the year for Micah Lea’alafa. The Auckland City and Solomon Islands star competed in a staggering three major FIFA tournaments on three different continents for club and country.

As well as featuring in Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying for the first time with Solomon Islands – a cluster of 900 individual islands to the north east of Australia – Lea’alafa took to the courts of Bucaramanga and Medellin at the 2016 Futsal World Cup, donning his national team colours once more as Kurukuru bowed out at the group stage in Colombia.

A shy and unassuming person, but someone who plays the game with high intensity and passion, the forward’s memorable year concluded at the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup Japan, coming on as substitute as Auckland City suffered a slender 2-1 defeat to eventual finalists Kashima Antlers.

“2016 was a very interesting year juggling between the different codes of football and futsal,” he said.

“As always, it’s an honour to play for your country – whether it’s futsal or World Cup qualifiers. And then to play a second time at the FIFA Club World Cup, it was a huge honour.”

Renowned in Oceania for his lightning-quick pace, Lea’alafa made his senior football international debut in a 2-0 friendly victory against Papua New Guinea, before appearing in May’s OFC Nations Cup. The 25-year-old played every minute for Solomon Islands in the continental competition, which also serves as the second round of Oceania World Cup qualifying, as the Bonitos bowed out at the semi-final stage.

“I honestly didn’t expect to be playing for the national football team; my focus for Solomon Islands was on futsal,” he said.

“But to now be playing for the senior national football side, it’s a wonderful opportunity.

“I really enjoyed the experience of playing at the OFC Nations Cup and it was interesting for me because I was playing under Moses Toata, who was the manager at my previous club Solomon Warriors, and Moses’ assistant was Ramon Tribulietx, my current coach at Auckland City. I found the style interesting and I enjoyed playing under both.”

Manager Trubulietx was not the only familiar face from Auckland City in PNG however, with Lea’alafa coming up against club team-mate Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi when Solomon Islands faced New Zealand in the group stage.

“We get on very well together at Auckland, he’s a great guy, but all that friendship is put aside when the Solomon’s play the All-Whites,” Lea’alafa said.

“It’s all go whenever you’re out on the pitch.”

An accomplished Gospel singer, when the grounded Lea’alafa isn’t balancing between the two disciplines of football and futsal, he will likely be found striking the right note with his local church.

“My other passion is music,” he said.

“I sing and also play a few instruments in the church band – so when I’m not playing football and futsal, I’m usually practising there, playing on Sundays or helping clean up. I love being involved whenever I can.”

One thing Lea’alafa didn’t expect was for Colombia to be in full voice for Solomon Islands at the 2016 FIFA Futsal World Cup. His third time taking part at the tournament, Lea’alafa and Kurukuru captured the hearts of the local fans with their plucky spirit and sheer passion for the game, leading captain Elliot Ragomo to give an emotional, heart-felt speech ahead of their final game.

“It felt like we were playing at home with so many people there supporting us, we were pleasantly surprised,” Lea’alafa said.

“To have the support of the Colombian fans, for us, it was like having an extra person on the team. That was part of the feeling, and the other was that maybe we had no right to be enjoying this success. But it was a pleasure, a real pleasure.”

Immensely popular in the Solomon Islands, futsal was introduced to the country through Australia’s Dural Baptist Church during the early 2000s and took the population by storm. Success at the 2008 OFC Futsal Championship saw Kurukuru – and Lea’alafa – reach the Futsal World Cup for the first time at Brazil 2008, and where they have also featured in the last two editions of the tournament.

“Futsal is huge in the Solomon Islands. It’s one of two opportunities – Beach Soccer and Futsal – for a young kid to end up playing on the world stage,” he said.

“Everyone in the country stops and watches the games whenever they’re on, even doctors at the hospital. When we play, we know that everyone back home is following and giving us incredible support.”

It wasn’t just with the national side that Lea’alafa was presented with the chance to compete at a third and final FIFA tournament in 2016. Success with Auckland City in the OFC Champions League – where the forward bagged a brace in the final and collected the competition’s Golden Ball – saw Lea’alafa go on to compete at his second successive Club World Cup in Japan.

“It was a big opportunity to play for Auckland City,” he said.

“I knew it would be hard and I didn’t think I would enjoy so much success, so to win the OFC Champions League Golden Ball but, primarily, to win the continental competition with the club, was fantastic.”

With Auckland’s OFC Champions League campaign kicking off in March, the journey continues for the fleet-footed Lea’alafa.

Story courtesy of FIFA. For more on the world game visit www.fifa.com

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