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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
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
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links