Q&A: trans soccer player Jaiyah Saelua on ‘Next Goal Wins’ and American Samoa’s underdog story

Jaiyah Saelua played on an American Samoa soccer team that is now the focus of a new film, "Next Goal Wins."
Jaiyah Saelua played on an American Samoa soccer team that is now the focus of a new film, “Next Goal Wins.”
Pua Tofaeono

Inspired by true events (and slightly embellished for the screen), “Next Goal Wins” recounts the “comeback” story of the American Samoa soccer team — 10 years after their brutal (and unforgettable) 31-0 loss in 2001. 

Hoping to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the team gets a new coach, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who is hired to help the team score just one goal. The players, who may be as uninspired as Rongen, include Daru (Beulah Koale); the son of Tavita (Oscar Kightley); the assistant manager; and Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana); who is fa’afafine (a recognized third gender).

Jaiyah’s contribution to the team is significant. She motivates Rongen after he gives up hope (and quits) and helps him find players, like Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), the goalie who gave up 31 goals back in 2001. In return, Rongan makes Jaiyah the team captain, and she is essential to the final score in the team’s qualifying match against Tonga. 

The real Jaiyah, who was the first openly trans athlete to compete in a World Cup qualifier, spoke with Gay City News about her experiences on the soccer pitch and “Next Goal Wins.”

What does it mean to have your story in particular, and the team’s story in general, made into a film?

It’s so surreal. We’re one of the worst teams in the world. We made the news for the 31-0 loss against Australia. I was not on that team, for the record. [laughs] To have a film crew come and make a documentary that eventually turned out to be a Hollywood feature film, you don’t think these things will happen. 

In the film, Jaiyah has some real issues with Coach Rongen initially. He misgenders her, and she knocks him down. But then he asks her about being fa’afafine, as well as some invasive questions, too. But they eventually develop mutual respect and trust. What can you say about your experiences with Coach Rongen and how accurately did the film depict them?

It is not accurate to the timeline in the movie, but it is accurate in the sense that Thomas and I do have that special relationship now. He was intense as a coach, and I was initially very timid as one of the players. The more we realized, as a team, that he took our development very seriously, the more we wanted to learn as much as we could from him. I learned to respect him as a coach. 

Likewise, I appreciated the team’s acceptance of Jaiyah. In America, this would not necessarily be the case as there are battles being waged about trans athletes. Can you talk about the respect you receive as a teammate and a fa’afafine?

The idea of discrimination and hostility against trans folk was so foreign to me. But when I realized that there was a need for trans advocacy, which was around 2011, I was recognized as the first out transgender woman to play in a FIFA section tournament. But understand that the reason I had it easier than trans women who venture into women’s sports, is because I am a trans woman playing on the men’s side. And the reason I’m comfortable playing on the men’s side is because of where I am from. I grew up in a society and in a culture that recognizes my identity as a third gender and respects the fa’afafine identity and community. There are instances of discrimination, but not in the sense that we are ostracized as a community. That’s the reason I didn’t feel the need to venture into women’s sports or feel validated in playing on a women’s team. That is true to my personal experience. I feel caught between two worlds. I am used as an example by the far right who say things like she is a trans woman who plays on a man’s team, why can’t every trans woman? I can’t stand that I am used as an example for that. But I am used on the side of the LGBTQI+ community where I am unapologetic, and so visible and confident in my identity as a trans woman who plays a sport. I try to be as visible as possible and as true to my identity as a fa’afafine and trans woman without flitting into on that narrative that I am a trans woman who plays on a men’s team. It’s difficult, but that’s my reality. 

There is a scene in the film where Jaiyah has a moment of crisis; she stops taking her hormone medications. If that happened, can you discuss that decision? It’s very dramatic.

It didn’t happen in 2011, but it did in 2015. I had just started taking hormones in 2011. After four years, and the effects of the treatment were felt in my body, I felt I wasn’t performing well enough. I had gained weight, I was lazy, and emotional — not that those are bad things, but they are for athletes — so I had to decide. It was a tough decision, and I ended up choosing not to go off in 2015 and was I cut because of that. I decided to go off hormones after that, so in 2019, when I returned to national team, I would be better than I was before. I was so good, I was named captain and performed well in the Pacific games. So, it was real for me. 

“Next Goal Wins” emphasizes the point that you should not deny who you are to win, and that one should respect the customs and traditions of the culture. Can you talk about that philosophy, and playing for the love of the game, which inspires the team’s success? 

That’s been the basis of our national team since we became members of FIFA. After the 31-0 loss our morale was down. It wasn’t a good feeling knowing that we made history for those reasons. It never stopped us from playing because we loved it so much. It was going out there and doing the best we can do even knowing that we know we won’t do well. You are playing for your family, your country, and your love of game. That’s how it is for teams in American Samoa and the Pacific reason. 

One of the themes of the film is that there is more to life than just soccer. While you coach soccer as the credit in the film’s end says, what do you do outside of the beautiful game? 

All my life has revolved around football in some capacity. I coach, I play, I referee. It’s a testament to my passion for the game. This is a hard question to answer [laugh]. I do have a side passion for dancing. I love dancing and the discipline of dancing. I tried ballet, but that’s a little too difficult for me. I like modern, contemporary, and I did the Broadway Theater Project at the University of Southern Florida. That’s where I was really first introduced to dance as a concentration and I started to love it even more then, but not as much as football though.

“Next Goal Wins” | Directed by Taika Waititi | |. Opening at the AMC Lincoln Square 13, AMC Empire 25, Regal Union Square, Alamo Drafthouse Lower Manhattan, AMC Kips Bay, AMC 34th Street 14, Regal Battery Park, and other theaters  on November 17 | Distributed by Searchlight Pictures