Raphael Lea’i, who was one of the stars of the OFC Qatar Qualifiers last year, has become the first player from the Solomon Islands to play professionally in Europe. The 19-year-old striker has signed a deal with Bosnia and Herzegovinian club FK Velež Mostar.
Lea’i was at the club on a trial for the last month, and impressed in a match against Croatian side NK Neretvanac Opuzen that convinced Velež to offer him a deal for the next two seasons.
The club’s website describes Lea’i as “the first player in history from the Solomon Islands to sign a professional contract with a European club, and it is clear that a lot is expected of him in that country in the future, and surely the expectations are high in his new club as well.”
FK Velež Mostar has a history of being one of the most successful clubs from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently plays in the Premier League BH. It celebrated its 100th birthday last year, during which they appointed Amar Osim, one of the most successful Bosnian football managers, as its new manager.
Raphael Lea’i is the first Solomon Islands player to sign a professional contract in Europe. He’s joined FK Velež Mostar of Bosnia. He’s a very special player and testament to Solomon Islands’ growth and the power of futsal, the game he grew up playing from age 12. pic.twitter.com/d45KeH2IOt
— Paul Watson (@paul_c_watson) January 29, 2023
For Lea’i, this is the next stage on a career that has shown much promise from an early age. After attending secondary school in New Zealand, the striker was heavily scouted by A-League clubs after shining in international competition.
In September 2018, Lea’i was selected for the 2018 OFC U-16 Championship, held in Honiara. He was crucial to the success of the Solomon Islands team, scoring seven goals in three consecutive 5–0 wins over Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Vanuatu. Solomon Islands subsequently qualified for the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup by defeating Fiji 3–1 in the semi-final.
In the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Lea’i appeared in all three games – against Italy, Paraguay and Mexico – as the Solomon Islands were eliminated in the group stage.
At last year’s OFC Qatar Qualifiers he scored he scored all three goals in a 3–1 win against Tahiti to cement Solomon Islands’ spot top of Group A and qualify to the semi-finals as group winners.