Solomon Islands striker signs for top Bosnian football club

Lea’i wearing FK Velež Mostar colours

Solomon Islands hotshot Raphael Lea’i has signed for Bosnian footballing giants FK Velež Mostar, to become the first Solomon Islander to ever sign for a professional European club.

Lea’i signed a one-year contract after a successful trial for the club which is known as The Rodeni.

The deal includes the possibility of extending the contract for another year.

Lea’i began his playing career at Honiara club Henderson Eels FC for whom he played in the OFC Champions League.

After playing for the Solomons at various age group levels, Lea’i made his international debut in 2022.

Eels president Hudson Wakio said the striker has great discipline and always wants to improve himself.

“Raphael is different from most of our players, in terms of self-discipline and his eagerness to push himself. He always challenges and pushes himself on to achieve higher goals.

“In Solomon Islands, players train only once a day, usually in the evening, but Raphael trains three times a day.”

Wakio said Lea’i’s move shows there is a route to professional football for young prospects in Solomon Islands and around the Pacific.

“There are many pathways for Solomons players to follow, especially in securing a professional contract. All of these of these partner pathways, they all lead to the same goals or aims, which is to seek a professional contract.

“So, either going through New Zealand or Australia or tariff to Europe, I think they all lead into the same.”

The 19-year-old scored four goals during the Oceania World Cup Qualifying Tournament in March 2022 helping the Solomons reach the final, where they lost to New Zealand.

Team coach Felipe Vera-Arango said after the tournament Lea’i was good enough to play in Europe.

“He’s 19-years-old. It’s the first time that he plays in senior level at this level. Before he started the game today, he was in the top of the scoring list with Chris Wood, who plays in the Premier League, and he played with pain and he played with a lot of hamstring problems and he tried as hard as he could,” he said.

Solomon Islands captain Micah Lea’alafa said at the time Lea’i has a bright future ahead of him.

Velez was one of the most successful clubs in Yugoslavia, finishing runner-up in the national league three times in the 1970s and 80s and reaching the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup in the 1974-75 season. The club has struggled in the post-Yugoslavia environment and played in Bosnia’s second tier for several seasons but is back in the Premier League, where they finished third in 2021.