In 2011, American Samoa's Jaiyah Saelua became the first transgender person to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Her appearance on the field made history — but so did her play.
At the time, American Samoa continually found itself at the bottom of the FIFA world rankings. It was the world's worst soccer team, having never won a match in international competition — the team had scored twice in 17 years of play — and having famously suffered a 31-0 defeat to Australia in 2001, which remains the worst defeat in the history of international soccer.
During a 2011 qualifier against Tonga, American Samoa was winning 2-1. But a tie seemed assured when American Samoa's goalie rushed forward and a pass headed toward their goal. Saelua, however, had dropped back, and she was able to clear the ball just before it rolled in, thus preserving the team's first-ever victory.
That scene plays out in Next Goal Wins, a documentary about the team and their first victory that opened this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“That was the number one happiest moment in my life,” Saelua told VICE News when we met her in Manhattan two days after Next Goal Wins premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Number one.”
VICE News: How did you get into soccer?
Jaiyah Saelua: It was the only competitive sport opened up to the private elementary schools in American Samoa, so I started playing when I was 11 or 12. My first coach ever was Nicky Salapu. [He was the goalkeeper in American Samoa’s 31-0 loss to Australia and in their 2011 victory over Tonga.] That year we won the championship, and I got MVP. If we had lost and I didn’t do well, I probably would not have had much interest in soccer. Then my freshman year in high school I got asked to try out for the national team, and I made the team.
When did you realize you were transgender?
It was sort of in hiding in elementary school. I was confused about it, and then in high school I met other transgender and they became my best friends. We learned from each other throughout high school, eventually coming out to family and friends. And then shaving our legs, plucking our eyebrows.
How common are transgender people in American Samoa?
There’s an understanding; we call it fa'afafine. It literally translates into way of a woman or womanly, and applies strictly to male-to-female transgenders. There are responsibilities within the community and the family, such as being able to organize events, funerals, weddings. And making sure you know how to do female and male jobs in the household. There's an association — the Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa, or SOFIAS. Every year they do a fundraiser, and proceeds are split between a home for the elderly run by the Catholic Church and a children’s ward at the hospital.
The Church works closely with a transgender group?
Religion plays a big role in life in American Samoa, but more important than religion is faith. Religion has practices a lot of people in the world do because you have to do them. But the more important thing is your relationship with God. If you say you love God and then you turn around and say you hate fags and that fags are the devil, it’s hard to believe you have a strong relationship with God. It’s much easier to love others if you truly love God.
You left the national team when you went to college in Hawaii. What did you make of America's less tolerant views?
Growing up in a community that is so accepting and loving, it’s hard to understand what the big deal is. I really don’t understand why anyone would hate someone so much because of who they are.
Did you experience intolerance there?
When I went to school, I tried out for the University of Hawaii men’s soccer team. They had tryouts at five in the morning, and by 5:15 I was walking back home. During the warm-ups the head coach pulls me aside, says he doesn’t want to put his players in an awkward position. I didn’t even get to the tryout process to show them how good I was. I got home, cried my eyes out, and went on with my day. I knew I was better than them anyway.
So how did you re-join the national team after you went to school?
I was going to University of Hawaii at Hilo and I wasn’t playing soccer — there was no club-level team. It was summer 2011 and I was supposed to graduate the following year. I went home for a vacation, and I didn’t even know the national team was training for the tournaments. But I ran into a player while I was shopping and he said to come by. I didn’t even have to try out again. I took the semester off so I could play.
After 2011 I was ready to go full throttle with my transition, but we became so successful I had to rethink because I wasn’t ready to give up soccer for good. So I’m delaying my transition for another four years.
How did it affect your transition?
There are no resources in American Samoa — the resources are available in Hawaii. I lowered my dosage for the tournament; I didn’t want to be too soft on the field, or play at my lowest potential.
The Dutch coach of the American Samoan team, Thomas Rongen, gets a lot of credit for turning the team around. How did he do it?
When he first got there, we thought he’d be like, “I could care less.” Another white man coming to do his job and leave. But nobody showed any interest in helping us grow as players more than Coach Thomas. He genuinely wanted to help us become better. He didn’t only work on our physical skills, he trained us to think as winners. We were so used to losing, our train of thought became, Let’s go represent our country on a free trip. If we don’t make it, oh well. Coach Thomas changed our perspective. Because of that, we were able to become better players physically too.
How did he deal with you as transgender?
He pulled me aside and asked if it was Johnny or Jaiyah. [Other coaches had called Jaiyah “Johnny” in the past.] I said “Jaiyah.” From that point, I realized he actually cared that I was different, as opposed to other coaches who would just have me on the sidelines. He would give me advice, and he pushed his wife to me to give me advice on being feminine around all these boys. I was even more comfortable being trans because Coach Thomas was accepting and supportive.
Are you going to stay on the team for the next World Cup?
Definitely. My longterm goal is to go back to American Samoa once I get my dancing degree. I want to help with the development process [for younger players], and I want to travel and advocate. After 2011 I was ready to go full throttle with my transition, but we became so successful I had to rethink because I wasn’t ready to give up soccer for good. So I’m delaying my transition for another four years.
Are you going to Brazil for this year's World Cup?
I’d love to go. I’m just waiting on FIFA to give me a position to advocate. FIFA has a team of players from different countries there to fight discrimination in the sport. I figured there’s only one trans player to discuss trans discrimination.
Follow Joe Lamport on Twitter: @joelamport