"That's where my heart is" - Beograd's Lea'alafa grateful to open doors for Islanders
Under the stewardship of Josh Smith, South Australian NPL side FK Beograd has become a proactive opportunity provider for Pacific Island footballers. New signing Micah Lea'alafa spoke to Front Page Football recently about his move and hopes for the next generation of Pacific Islanders.
Micah Lea'alafa in action for FK Beograd against Adelaide United Youth recently. (Adam Butler/@8zerokms)
Not many NPL clubs can claim they have the captain of a national team represent them. But South Australian side FK Beograd is an exception to the rule. Solomon Islands captain Micah Lea'alafa is one of many new signings that arrived at Frank Mitchell Park in 2023. His ability and playmaking are already turning heads.
At first glance, a Pacific Island footballer linking up with a Serbian heritage club seems peculiar. But both sides have embraced it, and thanks to coach Josh Smith, it is not the first time the club has successfully utilised this pathway.
After helping Wynnum Wolves gain promotion from the Football Queensland Premier League 2 (FQPL2) to FQPL1, the Queensland-based club was keen to re-sign Lea'alafa. But after receiving a call from Smith, who the winger had known since he was 16 when they met at a futsal tournament, he knew it was time to embark on a new adventure in South Australia.
"It is my first time playing under him (Josh Smith) and my first time playing under a young coach; he is just two years older than me! He is a good coach, pushes us every training session, and wants us to have a good game every week. I want to help him achieve his goals, and that is why I came," Lea'alafa told FPF.
He may only be a few months into his time at Beograd. But Lea'alafa was complimentary of the environment the club has created, which is getting the best out of him.
"I just feel at home now," the winger shared.
"When I go to training, everyone treats each other like brothers; it’s a good club. I’d love to play for them for the rest of the season and my football career."
After being slowly integrated into the starting lineup, Lea'alafa has shown his value so far, scoring two crucial goals in 2023. His first was a tap-in against Croydon FC before he netted a goal-of-the-season contender in a win against defending champions Adelaide City. As a senior, international player, Lea'alafa was under no illusions of the expectations placed on him heading into the season, and he shared his relief at finding the back of the net to help his team pick up points.
"It’s been a tough journey for me; I normally play as a playmaker, so I don’t score many goals; I just want to help the team win. As a foreigner, you have to be someone who wins games for them (FK Beograd), so it was just a relief for me to score my first goal (against Croydon FC)," Lea'alafa said.
"I know that they (Adelaide City) are going to be a good team, so in my mind, I wanted to play at my best, and I gave everything in that game. When the ball fell to me, I thought, ‘I have to do it now!’
Season 2022 saw Beograd sign Vanuatu players Brian Kaltak and Tasso Jeffrey, with the former a revelation, having since earned a move to A-League Men side Central Coast Mariners, his first professional deal at the age of 29. Along with Lea'alafa, FK Beograd signed Australian-born Vanuatu international Jared Clark in 2023, continuing the club's commitment to providing Pacific Island footballers with a platform to showcase their ability.
Kaltak's rise to stardom has seen him win the Mariners' Coaches Player of the Year Award while playing a significant role in a side that has reached the Semi-Final stage of Australia's professional competition. Lea'alafa, who previously played with Kaltak at multiple clubs, is proud of his friend, calling him an "inspiration" for Pacific Island footballers. But he also hailed Josh Smith's influence on Kaltak's trajectory.
"For us (Pacific Island footballers), it’s hard to get a visa and to play in Australia, it’s difficult. We just want to thank Josh (Smith) for this; that guy loves [Pacific] Island players. It is because of him that we came to Australia, and Brian (Kaltak) is in the A-League," Lea'alafa said.
Lea'alafa knows the hardships footballers from the Pacific Islands face to become professionals all too well. After finally receiving a professional contract with South African side Maritzburg United in 2019, he had to return home after an injury, leading to a release from his contract in early 2020 and keeping him on the sidelines.
While hoping the emergence of Kaltak opens the eyes of clubs to Pacific Island talent, Lea'alafa also urges clubs at all levels in Australia to do their homework on an underappreciated part of the football world.
"You have to go and check it out; we have a lot of talented players. We just need someone to give us a chance, an opportunity to show our talent," he said.
Despite the hardships in his career, the winger does not take the privilege of playing football in Australia for granted. Having led his country to the Final of the Oceania FIFA World Cup Qualifiers against New Zealand, Lea'alafa feels he is carrying the flag for Solomon Islands' football community in Australia.
"I am playing in Australia but still playing for my country here. Coming from a nation that loves football, it is a big deal back in Solomon. It is an honour to represent my country playing in Australia," he added.
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Playing football is still of paramount importance for Lea'alafa. But he is using his position as a well-respected senior player to help open doors for the next generation of Pacific Island players, just like coach Josh Smith.
Lea'alafa spoke about going out of his way to get players involved in Australia and New Zealand, most recently using mutual connections to help countryman Ali Mekawir sign for Adelaide City last year.
"That’s where my heart is," the winger concluded.
"I want to help the young generation to compete at that level, enjoy their talents, and make their dreams come true."
People like Lea'alafa and Smith fight against obstacles to give Pacific Island footballers a shot at pursuing their dreams of becoming professional footballers. Stories like Kaltak's help them on their journey. But clubs themselves should do their homework and take the plunge.
The Mariners raised eyebrows when they signed Kaltak as one of the club's five international players. But anyone following his journey to that point knew it was overdue. His journey remains an inspirational story. Clubs like FK Beograd and individuals like Lea'alafa and Smith are working hard to make the fairytale ending possible for a region that loves football but is starved of professional opportunities.
Click here to read an interview piece FPF did with Lea'alafa's teammate Jared Clark in 2022.