The Solomon Islands Under 17 men’s football team can’t wait to test themselves on the world stage at the UEFA International development tournament.
The Melanesian side depart today for Belarus, where they will face some of Europe’s best young players at the annual age grade tournament in Minsk.
The opportunity was made possible through a new partnership between UEFA, Oceania Football and Solomon Islands Football Federation, with all costs fully-funded by the European governing body.
Solomon Islands will play three matches against Moldova, hosts Belarus and Kazakhstan, with the likes of Belgium, Bulgaria, Israel, and Ukraine among the other teams involved.
Defender Leon Kofana said it was a welcome opportunity after the Melanesian side lost their place at the Under 17 World Cup for fielding an overage player in the Oceania qualifiers.
“For me it’s very exciting for me because we don’t go to the World Cup so this is an opportunity for all of us to try our best from any scout over their to scout players of us.”
Striker Rafael Le’ai, who was voted best player at the Oceania Under 16 Championship in Honiara last year, said they are looking forward to challenging themselves against some of the best young players in Europe.
“We expect some of the teams they are very tough because they are European teams, they are good and some of them are training in good facilities,” he said.
“I think it’s very difficult for us but we [will] try our best to compete with them…we want to go there and perform to our best, we will try our best to perform for our country.”
Cool football runnings
Rafael Le’ai and Leon Kofana moved to New Zealand six weeks ago after being offered scholarships to attend Scots College in Wellington, off the back of their impressive performances for Solomon Islands at the Oceania Under 16 Championship in September.
While they’ve settled into their schooling and already turned out for the Scots College First XI in pre-season both admit they are still adjusting to the cooler climate. Le’ai confessed the “cold weather is difficult (to adjust to) from Solomon Islands”.
While Kofana joked it was “too much for me – in Solomons it’s not cold but now very cold”.
Speaking to RNZ Pacific on a brisk Saturday morning, the duo said they had been warmly welcomed by their new schoolmates, which even included some of the New Zealand Under 17 internationals they played against in Honiara last year.
“They’re friendly, good to us because we played against them. They’re so good for us and also the teachers and the squad they’re good, they treat us good,” said Kofana.
“Back home we don’t play good as here. The standard in here is a little bit higher and I’m so happy to play with all the New Zealand Under 17 (players) for Scots.”
Leon Kofana and Rafael Le’ai have also joined the Wellington Phoenix Academy and had the opportunity to train alongside the first team squad, including Fiji captain Roy Krishna who has been a trailblazer for Pacific Islands players in the A-League over the past five and a half years.
“It’s a great opportunity but when we arrived here they told us we are training with Phoenix and we were pretty happy with that, it was a bonus for us,” said Le’ai.
“Family back home they are very happy because the Phoenix is the professional club here in New Zealand so they are very happy with that.”
“They’re happy because we represent our family and Solomon Islands also,” added Kofana.
The Wellington-based pair will link up with the rest of the 20-man Solomons Under 17 squad in Brisbane today before continuing on to Belarus.