Soccer’s Fa’afafine Superstar
By Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Photography by Olivier Konig
By 2011, Jayiah Saelua had already been playing soccer for more than a decade on the unruly fields of her native American Samoa, the tiny Polynesian island that flecks the ocean between Australia and South America. But that year, when trying out for the University of Hawaii’s men’s soccer team, Saelua was yanked off the field within 15 minutes. “Thank you for coming out today,” the head coach told her. “But I don’t want to put my team in an uncomfortable position.” Saelua nodded in immediate and embarrassed recognition, murmured a quick “Thank you,” and rushed home.
“I knew what he was referring to,” Saelua says, sitting at a Honolulu café and running her fingers through her meticulously flat-ironed hair. “I had the shortest shorts on the field, my legs were shaved, and I was wearing a padded bra.” Drafted onto American Samoa’s national team at age 14 thanks to her fearsome tackling skills, Saelua thought her deft footwork and years of training would eclipse any issues about the way she looked on the field. Saelua remembers crying after the 5 a.m. tryout as the first smudges of daylight appeared on the windward side of the island. “I thought maybe I should have put on a masculine show, made the team, and shown up in a dress later,” she says. “But then I was like, You know what? Fuck it. I have to get ready for my dance class.” Saelua figured she’d be more welcome at her new school in pointe shoes than in cleats.
During her summer break back home in American Samoa, Saelua gave soccer one more shot and rejoined the national team. For the first time, she made first string, becoming the first transgender player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifying game. The president of FIFA, Joseph Blatter, sent her a personal letter of congratulations.
In almost every country in the world, growing up to be a soccer (a.k.a. football) player is the fever dream of the adolescent boy. To make the national team, let alone with such a markedly feminine running style (Saelua’s other on-field trademark), is akin to winning an Oscar. What’s more, when she slipped back into short soccer shorts, American Samoa was at the dirt bottom of the FIFA rankings, having not won a single competitive match in more than 17 years. The national team is not sponsored; the players don’t get paid, and coaches and trainers volunteer their time. “Before, when we played, we thought of a match as a free trip and a hotel stay,” Saelua says. “People loved playing and didn’t want to lose, but I don’t think we thought we would actually win.”
Enter Thomas Rongen, a silver-haired, shit-talking, hard-ass Dutchman with a heart of gold who worked with the team relentlessly for a month before the qualifiers. Rongen quickly identified Saelua as a star athlete who was woefully underused.
Rongen also did something no coach had ever done before. “He was the first coach to call me Jayiah on the field, and not Johnny,” Saelua says. Rongen also installed Saelua as the team’s center back. “Can you imagine that in England or Spain?” Rongen asked reporters before the first match. “I’ve really got a female starting at center back.” Though the team did not qualify for the World Cup, they won their first competitive match, beating Tonga 2-1 and breaking a 30-game losing streak.