Jaiyah Saelua — one of the central characters of the upcoming film “Next Goal Wins” — has returned to the red carpet in recent weeks but there’s a sense of regret that she won’t be stepping out onto a soccer pitch with American Samoa again any time soon.
She is in Hollywood to promote “Next Goal Wins”, a new telling of the story about the Polynesian island football team that shook off the ignominy of being the world’s worst team through teamwork and passion.
Saelua traveled around the world to help promote the original 2014 documentary in which she was a central figure, giving her an international profile.
Now, after overcoming several production obstacles, Oscar-winning writer-director Taika Waititi’s big-hearted comedy version hits theaters in time for Thanksgiving.
“Taika’s movie will take you back to when you first started playing any sport at a grassroots level,” Saelua tells Outsports, “and it will remind you that reaching a common goal together is more important than winning.”
As audiences head to cinemas to watch the film this month, the actual American Samoa team will be playing its first official fixtures in over four years at the Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands. Saelua is sad that she won’t be there with them.
“It’s a decision I don’t take lightly,” she wrote when announcing the news,” but these appearances for ‘Next Goal Wins’ are once-in-a-lifetime… I can’t imagine not being a part of it.”
Saelua is, herself, a one-off — the first out trans player in international football, and still unique in the men’s elite game as a fa’afafine, the third gender that has been part of traditional Samoan culture for generations.
She was 15 when she made her national-team debut in a World Cup qualifier back in 2004. Nearly two decades later, it’s largely through her visibility that fa’afafine — people who have grown up feminine and are validated as such in Samoan society, having been assigned male at birth — have any global recognition outside of the South Pacific.
American Samoa is a U.S. territory, while Samoa is an independent state. Estimates place the number of fa’afafine on the islands at around 3,000, making up a small but significant percentage of their populations.
Saelua didn’t set out to be a spokesperson for her community and could never have dreamed of being a transgender icon. She was recently named on the annual Out100 list of impactful and influential LGBTQ people.
“This responsibility to advocate or be the voice for trans women in sport was pretty much pushed on me,” she says.
“But I learned very quickly that there was a need for it and I’m still learning because it’s a passion for me.
“I just love playing football and being myself so I’m taking all these experiences one at a time.”
Waititi’s screenplay puts several extra flourishes onto the American Samoa story but the narrative structure is the same as the documentary, starting with a reminder of the record 31-0 defeat suffered in Australia in 2001.
The unprecedented rout was reported around the world and for the next decade, the team lost every match it played. As the Oceania confederation’s preliminary qualifying round for World Cup 2014 approached, American Samoa was ranked bottom of over 200 affiliated FIFA nations.
Enter Thomas Rongen, an experienced, hard-working football coach but a fish out of water on the island. He is played by Michael Fassbender in the new movie which works best when Rongen’s irascibility collides with his players’ warm-hearted outlook on life.
He starts to loosen up, they start to toughen up — Saelua significantly — and belief begins to spread through the squad.
It’s a fresh take on the material in the documentary, at the end of which we saw Saelua contemplating whether she would wear Dolce & Gabbana or Gucci at the premiere. Now she’s back for a second edition and so appreciative of her good fortune.
“I’m most thankful for the platform even being created back in 2011 because without it, none of these things would have been possible,” she says.
“At that point, I had just started my transition. Since then, all the opportunities that I’ve been given have been life-changing for me.”
Cast in the role of Jaiyah in “Next Goal Wins” is Kaimana, a fa’afafine and first-time actress. The duo met for the first time in Honolulu, at a filming launch party (American Samoa was deemed too remote and lacking in facilities for the shoot).
“We didn’t talk much about the movie,” says Saelua. “It was more just two trans girls sharing our experiences.
“But I did feel like she was trying to get to know me on a personal level so that she could portray me more authentically.
“When I saw the finished movie, I was really impressed with her performance. Her athleticism was impressive as well! I didn’t get any of that when I first met her.”
She gives Waititi a lot of credit too. “Taika was able to highlight the fa’afafine identity so beautifully. You can see how we are celebrated by our culture.”
In one early scene that has attracted some minor criticism, Coach Rongen is seen deliberately calling Jaiyah by her birth name. Saelua is relaxed about that — “a lot of the experiences that Jaiyah has in the movie aren’t 100% accurate to my relationship with Thomas,” she admits — and says the exchange serves a purpose.
“Those cringe moments, such as being called our deadname, are realities for a lot of trans folks,” she says.
“As traumatizing as they are, it’s important that audiences see those uncomfortable situations for themselves. Hopefully when they then experience them in real-time, they say and do something that helps to protect trans people.”
Does she worry that the increasing toxicity of social media makes that less likely? Saelua is a frequent user of most major platforms. “It’s pretty difficult there, especially because of ignorant people who don’t really know your story,” she says.
“But I try to be approachable because I feel a responsibility to get the identity of fa’afafine out there, so that people can learn about our existence.
“I want them to take something back to their homes and their communities and hopefully make the spaces for trans people — and all LGBTQIA+ people — a little safer.”
She believes “more could be done” by FIFA to make football accessible for gender-diverse players but she is optimistic about the future. The game’s governing body made her a judge for its Diversity Award, and not only flew her to Sydney for the Women’s Football Convention at the recent Women’s World Cup but also bestowed the honor of FIFA Legend upon her.
Saelua accepts she is rather easier to accommodate for FIFA, but that doesn’t make her any less vocal. She wants them to be “aggressive” when it comes to inclusion.
“Because I’m a trans woman who plays on the men’s side, I do have a privilege. In American Samoa, fa’afafine are nurtured in a way where they feel comfortable and it’s not the same for everyone.
“I think any trans woman who ventures into pursuing women’s sports is courageous. I commend them and I take a lot of inspiration from them.”
At the age of 35, Saelua is still notching up firsts — there was one in the OFC Champions League earlier this year with her club team, Ilaoa & To’omata. Although she is skipping the Pacific Games this month, she is far from finished with football.
“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,” she says.
“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.”
Six years ago, Outsports included Saelua on a list of trans people in sports who were inspiring others. Now “Next Goal Wins” is taking her story to millions around the world, showing how Samoan society can teach us all a thing or two about trans inclusion.
“Next Goal Wins”, released by Searchlight Pictures, is in cinemas from Nov. 17.