BY CRAIG STEPHEN
Jaiyah Saelua is no ordinary footballer. The American Samoan centre-back was the first transgender player to appear for a national team, when she turned out for the Pacific nation in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers in 2011.
Taking to the field with artfully assigned make-up, she is most certainly a head turner. But any prejudices will be met with short-shrift: Seilua vows to tackle harder against her blinkered opponents.
Her appearance at the first stage of the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup resulted in extensive international attention, including some of the British red tops, and to a starring role in the documentary on the American Samoa side, Next Goal Wins. But more importantly, Saelua helped the lowly-ranked side to gain its first ever official win – against Tonga – including a late clearance off the line.
That ended a dismal run of 30 consecutive defeats, including the infamous 31-0 thrashing by Australia during the qualifying tournament for the 2002 World Cup. While American Samoa were never going to test the Socceroos, their cause was hampered by FIFA’s strict passport rule.
The drubbing was used by Australia to push for changes, which FIFA consented to, but it has largely been forgotten that the Samoans had almost their entire squad grounded because FIFA has insisted they have US passports (and American Samoans don’t automatically gain a US passport), and the Under-20s were engaged elsewhere. So the team was packed with very raw teenagers.
Saelua wasn’t involved in that campaign, but was called up for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and played in the famous 2-1 win over Tonga. A one-all draw with the Cook Islands and a 1-0 defeat to Samoa scuppered any chance of progressing to face more established Pacific teams. But the tiny nation of about 60,000 people, whose national sport is American football, had partly atoned for that Sydney fiasco and moved up from around the bottom of FIFA’s rankings.
Saelua attributes the turnaround from ingrained losers to the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers coach Thomas Rongen, who she says instilled a winning mental attitude as well as improved tactics and fitness.
Born John Saelua, Jaiyah is eligible to play for the men’s team due to being born male.Embed from Getty Images
Saelua is one of many of Samoa’s (both halves) third sex, known as fa’afafine. Despite the Polynesian nations generally being resolutely religious and conservative, those who define themselves as a third gender are fully accepted.
“There are lots of fa’afafine in American Samoa that play soccer, and other sports, and even in other national teams in other sports. We are all given an equal opportunity to play sport,” she says.
Her national coaches have had no qualms about playing Saelua, but on travelling outside the Pacific, mistrust and prejudices surfaced.
When Saelua moved to Hawaii, trying out for a University of Hawaii men’s team, she was told to pack her bags.
“Fifteen minutes into the warm-up, the coach called me over and said he doesn’t want to put the rest of the team into an uncomfortable position and sent me home. That was my first major experience of discrimination.
“On the international pitch I have been called names a few times just to put me off my game, but I just tackle harder,” Saelua, now 28, says.
Western interpretation has mistakenly defined fa’afafine as gay or as drag queens/cross dressers. But in Samoa, Fa’afafine is ingrained in Samoan culture and most Samoans have friendships with at least one fa’afafine.
The origins of the third sex appear to be in the tradition of a family having more boys than girls or not enough girls to help with women’s duties about the house, male children would be chosen to be raised as fa’afafine.
“There’s an understanding; we call it fa’afafine,” Saaelua says.
“It literally translates into way of a woman or womanly, and applies strictly to male-to-female transgenders. There are responsibilities within the community and the family, such as being able to organize events, funerals, weddings. And making sure you know how to do female and male jobs in the household.”
Saelua had intended to undergo gender transition, but delayed this in 2011 to compete in the World Cup qualifiers. It is not known if this has eventuated.
Saelua is not alone as a transgender sportsperson; Renee Richards (tennis), Fallon Fox (MMA) and Miane Bagger (golf) have all had gender reassignment surgery and their attempts to play in women’s events were met with bans or opposition. Double Olympic gold medal winner Caster Semanya was forced to undergo gender testing after her 800 metres win in the 2009 world championships, and later returned to the track.
Saelua wasn’t able to add to her 10 caps in the 2018 World Cup campaign, in which American Samoa made gains by repeating the win over Tonga and defeating the Cook Islands, but were again beaten to the one spot in the next round by their Samoan rivals.
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