In Taika Waititi’s biographical drama film ‘Next Goal Wins,’ Jaiyah Saelua is a faʻafafine player who plays for the American Samoa national soccer team. In the culture of the territory, faʻafafines are individuals who express feminine characteristics upon getting assigned male at birth. She was an integral part of Thomas Rongen’s team which defeated Tonga in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, which made her the first openly non-binary and trans woman to play in a World Cup qualifier match. More than a decade after Jaiyah and her territory’s win against Tonga, she is still playing soccer while representing her community on the international stage!
Who is Jaiyah Saelua?
Jaiyah Saelua started playing soccer at the age of eleven. She was coached by Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who conceded thirty-one goals against Australia for American Samoa, as a child. She attended the University of Hawaiʻi as a performing arts student. When Thomas Rongen joined the American Samoa team as the head coach, she became an integral part of the Dutch-American manager’s squad for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. She shared the pitch with her former coach Salapu and together, they celebrated their team’s first international win.
Unlike the film’s portrayal, Jaiyah and Thomas had a warm relationship from the start. “I said: ‘Your passport says Johnny but I can hear the group calling you Jaiyah. What do you want me to call you?’ She said: ‘Coach, if you could call me Jaiyah.’ Without even thinking, I said: ‘Absolutely. You are Jaiyah.’ She told me I was the first coach to accept her,” Rongen clarified in an interview given to Sky Sports. Jaiyah was not a part of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers as she was completing her medical transition at the time. She eventually rejoined the team under the manager Tunoa Lui for the 2019 Pacific Games.
Jaiyah Saelua Continues to Play Soccer Today
Jaiyah Saelua continues to play soccer for her village club Ilaoa and To’omata, which plays in the territory’s top division, FFAS Senior League. As the captain of the club, she led the team in the 2023 Nations Cup. She had been playing for the American Samoa national team but left the squad ahead of the 2023 Pacific Games to attend the promotional programs of ‘Next Goal Wins.’ Jaiyah was a prominent presence at the film’s premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. She attended screenings and interacted with the press as part of the crew of the film in various countries, including England and Germany.
Jaiyah hasn’t stopped playing for American Samoa. She is planning to tie her boots for the 2027 Pacific Games. “The next 4 years will be tough, but the 2027 Pacific Games will be my final attempt at representing American Samoa on the pitch! For now, I will enjoy the perks of this beautiful journey, and will continue to represent American Samoa the best I can,” the soccer player shared. After the competition, Jaiyah may retire as she has been thinking about hanging her boots for a while now but we can be hopeful of seeing her play a lot before her retirement.
“We have the World Cup 2026 qualifiers next year and the OFC Nations Cup. So, there are many opportunities to play, but my happiness now comes from any involvement in the sport,” Jaiyah told Outsports in November 2023. Even after her retirement, Jaiyah is expected to remain involved in soccer. “The older I get, the more I realize that the end is near for me as an athlete so I’ve been venturing into coaching courses. I’d be interested in coaching a national women’s or youth team. I’ve also done some refereeing! I know I’ll always be involved,” she added. Jaiyah previously coached the junior club Leone Lions, only for her to win the “Coach of the Year Award” from the Football Federation American Samoa for her team’s 2018–2019 ASHSAA Boys J-V title campaign.
In addition to being a player, coach, and referee, Jaiyah is a FIFA ambassador for LGBTQ+ athletes. “This responsibility to advocate or be the voice for trans women in sport was pretty much pushed on me. But I learned very quickly that there was a need for it and I’m still learning because it’s a passion for me,” she added about her role as a FIFA ambassador to Outsports. Jaiyah was her territory’s representative at the FIFA Women’s Football Convention 2023. She also attended the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup final as a guest of FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Along with FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura, Infantino inducted Jaiyah into the class of FIFA Legends.
2023 was a year Jaiyah ventured into several other spheres of life. She collaborated with singer-songwriter Audrey English to shoot a music video. The soccer player was one of the judges of the Miss SFA Pageant 2023, a beauty pageant organized by the Samoa Fa‘afafine Association. Jaiyah is a recognized speaker, who shares her inspiring experiences with the next generation, as well.