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 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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future