FIFA legend Jaiyah Saelua caught the world’s attention as one of the subjects of Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s 2014 feature documentary Next Goal Wins which celebrated the resilience and passion of American Samoa’s national football team. Best known for their spectacular 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001 during a World Cup qualifying match, a decade later the team was attempting to break their 38 match losing streak or at least score a goal in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup. Jaiyah, who is both transgender and fa’afafine (a third gender long recognized in the Sāmoas), was part of that lineup, making her the first out trans person to play for their national team in a FIFA sanctioned game. Her story, and that of her teammates, is the inspiration behind Oscar-winner Taika Waititi’s latest film, also titled Next Goal Wins, which world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in US theaters on Friday, November 17th, with Kaimana making her acting debut in the role of Jaiyah starring opposite Michael Fassbender.
Ahead of the film’s release, Jaiyah Saelua spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about what playing for her national team has meant to her, taking on the role of advocate as well as athlete, and accepting early on that the movie version of her would be different from the real life Jaiyah.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You first started playing football competitively when you were 11 years old, what has the game meant to you in your life?
Jaiyah Saelua: “I fell in love with it at 11 years old because it was the only sport that I was offered at school and because at the grassroots level you play in a mixed, co-ed team, so it’s girls and boys versus another school with a girls and boys on the same team. We went on to win the championship title and I was named the most valuable player of the league. By 14, I was drafted to the national team and that was where my real passion for the sport began to grow because I was representing my country. That feeling of hearing the FIFA anthem while you’re walking onto the pitch and then standing in two lines with your opposing team and hearing your national anthem play while your hand is on your heart is incredible.”
“Being able to be myself and to represent my country was the pinnacle of soccer for me. Representing my country, then growing in the sport to the point where I was named the captain of the national team—as a trans woman and as a fa’afafine—is a testament to my people, the acceptance that we have and the fact that fa’afafine have a responsibility and a role in society. It all comes down to the fact that it’s a fun sport, I’m good at it, and I can be myself whilst representing my country. Those are the aspects that really drew me to to the sport.”
Being the first openly trans person to play on a national team and in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match put you in the position of being an advocate. How have you found taking on that role in addition to being an athlete and a coach?
“To be real with you, I didn’t know that it could even be a thing when I was recognized by FIFA as the first out trans woman to play in a FIFA sanctioned tournament in 2011. I thought, ‘What is that? Out of the more than 200 members who are FIFA affiliated countries in the world, and all the years that FIFA has been an organized entity, there hasn’t been a single person like myself to represent their country?!’ And when it did happen, it came from somewhere that is not only one of the smallest countries in the world, but one with one of the worst football teams!”
“To be from that kind of demographic and to have such a huge impact, I didn’t realize until the work started to roll in what a big platform it had created for me and how big the responsibility was. At first it was overwhelming and when it comes to advocacy, even now after so many years, I’m still learning and it’s ever changing. The narrative changes, our focus changes, and so I struggle at times. But I think the best that I can do is to tell the truth about my identity, about where I’m from, and my experiences and to hopefully inspire people. That’s been the basis of my advocacy work so far and it’s taken me to a lot of places.”
One of the things that I love about the film is that we get to see how accepting Jaiyah’s teammates—your teammates—are of her in the movie. What you think that the rest of the world could learn from that kind of acceptance in American Samoan culture of fa’afafine and trans people?
“For us, it doesn’t feel like acceptance because it’s not taboo and there’s no stigma. So it doesn’t feel like something that we have to pursue, to fight for acceptance. We’re just another part of our society and our community who live freely because culturally and traditionally we have roles and responsibilities and those are the things that allow us to to live freely and comfortably the way we are, no matter how different you may feel. I think the the lesson for Western societies is more so what they can learn from our community and how the Pacific region has a place for us and and in turn the way that we become assets to our communities. With things like this for instance, where we become the first in the world at something. It’s something that we don’t pursue, it just happens.”
This new movie has been in the works for a few years now. When it was being made, did you have a chance to go on set and meet Kaimana who plays you in the film?
“We met Taika in 2016 in Hawaii at dinner. He wanted to see Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, the directors of the documentary, and myself and he told us that he wanted to do this film we said, ‘Have fun, and good luck!’ Then we ate dinner and that was that. That was pretty much the beginning of what this project is now. I didn’t feel like I should be involved a lot in this project because I understood that Taika’s version of Jaiyah doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate to the real Jaiyah. Also with Kaimana, with her debut acting role I wanted her to have the freedom to take direction from Taika, but also to be herself a little in her acting and you do get that from Kaimana’s character in the movie. Not a lot of it is accurate, but a lot of the experiences that she has in the film are accurate to trans realities and trans experiences and the fa’afafine experience. In the documentary, I was just one character in a series of characters that made it flow, but Taika was generous enough to give his Jaiyah a lead role and a very consistent role throughout this film.”
The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, what was that experience like?
“My biggest worry was how audiences would receive the film and they loved it. They laughed every time there was a joke. They cried. They even cheered. The beauty of this film, and of our story, is that it appeals to different kinds of people: the rainbow community; athletes; and people who love comedies. It reaches out to so many demographics and at the end of it you come out feeling so fulfilled and happy. That was the motto of the movie, to be happy.”
One last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+ or fa’afafine; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“The whole sports part of my life was all me, but the advocacy part wasn’t. When that was new and the responsibility started rolling in with all these different jobs and panels I really looked to two people: Taffy Maene-Johnson, who is the founder and executive director of UTOPIA Washington, and Tuisina Ymania Brown-Gabriel, who has done a lot of work with the United Nations and the Samoa Fa’afafine Association and with ILGA Oceania. Those two people—not only because they’re Sāmoan, they’re fa’afafine, and they’re trans women—but because they had the knowledge and the experience of advocacy throughout the years. I turned to them for mentorship and I’m so grateful for everything that they’ve helped me learn, go through, navigate, and experience to help my journey as an advocate be smoother.”
By James Kleinmann
Next Goal Wins opens in US theaters on Friday, November 17th, 2023.