Pitch perfect: Transgender star lifts world's worst footballers
A new documentary tells how a football coach picked Jaiyah 'Johnny' Saelua to help failing American Samoa to their first ever victory
The tiny Polynesian nation of American Samoa had never won a football match. Officially the world's worst team, the national squad's results since its founding in 1994 ran to 30 straight defeats. At their lowest point, Australia whipped them 31-0, the biggest loss in the history of international football.
Victory, when it came, was always going to be front-page news for this island nation of 55,000 people. But when it did – a 2-1 win against local rivals Tonga – it was not just the result but also one of the team's star players that internationally would prove so noteworthy.
Centre-back Jaiyah Saelua was the first ever transgender player to take part in a competitive men's international.
Having previously been a bit-part squad member for 10 years, she held the defensive line with a series of crunching tackles and a crucial goal-mouth clearance that instantly propelled Saelua to the status of national heroine.
Her story, and the story of American Samoa's struggle to find a victory, is now the subject of Next Goal Wins, a documentary film released this week. Made by British pair Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, it is a study of inclusiveness and of what can be achieved in a culture where blinkered prejudices simply do not apply.
American Samoa, where Saelua is a member of Polynesia's "fa'afafine", or "third gender", has no issue with transgender people. Celebrated in the local culture, they are born as boys but choose to be brought up to be feminine. It is estimated there are around 500 fa'afafine currently living in the country.
The third way: Coach Thomas Rongen with his team "The foundation of the culture is respect, and that includes respect for fa'afafine," Saelua told The Independent on Sunday. "Growing up, there were maybe four or five fa'afafine in my family. I knew around the age of six or seven I was more in touch with my feminine side and I was more drawn to my fa'afafine aunties than I was to my own dad and uncle. I didn't have to deal with any discrimination; the community is very accepting."
That changed only when she moved to Hawaii to study dance at university and tried out for the college football team. "Fifteen minutes into the warm-up, I was asked to go home," she said.
"This was because the coach 'didn't want to put his team in an uncomfortable position'. While I was hurt and cried, I didn't let it stop me. I'd really like to get a copy of the film and give it to that soccer coach."
The arrival of a new Dutch manager, Thomas Rongen, transformed the American Samoa team. A former footballer and MLS [Major League Soccer] title-winning coach in the United States, he had been the only applicant for the job. He had also applied partly because he wanted a fresh start to try to recover from the death of his 18-year-old daughter in a car crash.
Next Goal Wins shows the remarkable bond that developed between him and Saelua. Where previous coaches had recognised her ability but not considered her quite good enough, he witnessed her commitment in training and instinctive positional awareness. It was his decision to play her that would pay off in the 2011 victory against Tonga.
Rongen knew the problems gay players often face. "I've been in locker rooms and it is very difficult for anyone who is different to come out because... the jokes, the sarcasm," he told The IoS. "The game doesn't allow people to come out and express themselves.
"But [in American Samoa] her integration into the team was seamless. I embraced the culture and that includes the fa'afafine. I looked at her just like another player on the field and knew to judge her only by her performances. She proved each and every day that she deserved to be a starter in that game."
Saelua, or "Johnny" as she is known on the pitch, was initially not even aware that what she had achieved was ground-breaking.
"I was asked by a journalist after the game how I felt about being the first transgender player and I said 'What? There aren't transgender players who play soccer in the world?' It's sad to hear that humans can limit the lives of other humans.
"The world can take more from the team than just from me. What the world can learn is from the boys, and how they accepted me. It doesn't have to be a big deal, if you accept trans-athletes. They have a lot to bring to the field."
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