Whilst the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Oceania qualifying journey may not be over for the Solomon Islands, captain Micah Lea’alafa believes one major goal from the competition has already been achieved – putting smiles on faces back home.
The Solomon Islands take on New Zealand in the competition final at the Grand Hamad Stadium on Wednesday night (Qatar time). They booked their place in the final with a thrilling 3-2 semi-final win over Papua New Guinea earlier this week.
Whilst advancing further through the FIFA World Cup qualifying stages is at stake, for Lea’alafa, providing something for his home nation to celebrate means the campaign is already considered a success.
“What an achievement for the boys and especially the country,” says Lea’alafa when asked about his feelings on making the final.
“We go through a lot of challenges and go through so many things in our country and this game means a lot for our country. It means a lot.”
Lea’alafa admits he was privately pleading with referee Mohammed Abdulla Mohammed to blow the whistle as their PNG opponents pushed hard late on for an equaliser. He would not have been alone, with many back home watching in the capital Honiara and beyond.
“You know Solomons people, they love soccer,” he says. “They love football.”
“So when we play here there is a whole nation behind us. When we score goals it is like scoring World Cup goals. Imagine if we played back home and we scored? The fans would go crazy.”
The winner of Wednesday’s final, a repeat of the two-legged centrepiece of the OFC Stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers, will advance to the FIFA World Cup Qatar intercontinental play-offs, again being staged in the host nation. There, a one-legged match against a team from the CONCACAF region will decide who advances to the final competition.
However, times have been tough in Lea’alafa’s homeland recently. Civil unrest in November last year was followed by the country’s first outbreak of Covid-19 in January.
So head coach Felipe Vega-Arango is reminding his players to simply embrace the moment.
“One thing that I completely agree with Micah is they have to enjoy it and the people in the Solomons they have to enjoy it,” says Vega-Arango.
“The Solomons sometimes has social problems and I know that football brings people together.”
Amid the difficulties back home the nation’s captain is hopeful the recent success in Qatar has provided some relief.
“To win games, just win, it brings smiles to people,” says Lea’alafa.
“A lot of my friends, they call me and say to me ‘you guys just need to win (to) make us happy’.
“This win I dedicate to them. Everyone.”
Solomon Islands take on New Zealand in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Oceania Qualifiers final at the Grand Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar on Wednesday night, 8.00pm local time (4.00am Solomon Islands time, 6.00am NZ time).