Soccer Star Jaiyah Saelua Has Complicated Feelings About ‘Next Goal Wins’

When Next Goal Wins, a film from director Taika Waititi about the triumphant transformation of American Samoa’s failing national men’s soccer team, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the real-life players depicted in the movie accompanied the filmmaker and former coach, Thomas Rongen, for an onstage Q&A.

Her name is Jaiyah Saelua, and she’s a center fielder who is fa’afafine, a third gender that is widely accepted in Samoan culture. When asked about what portions of the film were true, she replied that, while “a lot of it was accurate, for the sake of entertainment, we understand that he’ll do as he pleases,” gesturing towards Waititi. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” he joked in return.

But while the film spotlights Michael Fassbender as Rongen, the hard-edged American coach who relocates to revive the team’s dismal record, it’s hard to imagine a narrative more compelling than the one happening left of center. Saelua joined the national team at age 15, becoming the first openly trans and nonbinary athlete to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Her story is groundbreaking, but not the one that Waititi and cowriter Iain Morris (What We Do in the Shadows) chose to primarily tell.

The movie, which shares a name and subject with Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s 2014 documentary and is now in theaters, celebrates Saelua, who is played by nonbinary actor Kaimana. Team manager Tavita (played by Oscar Kightley) refers to her as “the Cindy Crawford of soccer” and fa’afafine people as flowers: “It’d be a pretty dark world without them.” But things get off to a rocky start between player and coach. The film’s version of Rongen doesn’t accept Saelua’s identity, going so far as to misgender and deadname her multiple times before she pummels him to the ground.

When I ask the real-life Saelua what her actual relationship with Rongen is like, she laughs slightly. “Not bad,” she tells Vanity Fair. “He was the coach. I was a player. That’s basically what it was. The only time he used my legal name at the time was during the roll calls and only because it’s what’s on the roster.” Saelua notes that she didn’t change her name legally until 2017. “But it was a nice little twist to make Thomas into—or make Fassbender into—sort of a villain in the movie. The things he does are the problems of the movie, and not so much the losses of the team.”

Saelua says she appreciates how despite that initial tension, the relationship between the onscreen Jaiyah and Rongen “evolved into where both of them are credited for the win—Kaimana for the goals, and for encouraging Fassbender to go out and recruit the talented players. I hope audiences don’t focus only on the beginning of the relationship and just appreciate how it grows throughout,” she adds. “But also it’s important that these uncomfortable situations that trans people and LGBTQIA+ people actually go through are visible and included in the film.”

The burden of achieving that feel-good outcome falls squarely on the character of Jaiyah’s shoulders. She’s made to educate her coach about how to accept a person who is different from himself. Does Saelua ever feel exhausted from explaining her identity to other people? “How else will they know if you don’t educate them?” she asks in return. “You can always learn about the fa’afafine identity on the internet, but their experience makes it special. [Rongen] learned firsthand not only about a new identity, but also how to step back and appreciate people for who they are and what they bring to the goal of the team. If it came at the expense of Kaimana’s uncomfortable experiences, I’m actually happy that she was the one to change him in that way. It makes me proud that I have the opportunity and the platform to continue to push that narrative, to help people change. It’s not tiring for me to preach it until the whole world knows.”

When speaking about Next Goal Wins, Saelua refers to the characters only by the actors’ names, but says she isn’t fazed by the creative license taken with her story. “It just doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel the need to, or the urge to, separate my real life experiences from Taika’s version,” she says, adding that the filmmaker “had enough Samoan people around him to make sure that there were no problems.” She also made herself available to Waititi should he have any questions, spent two weeks on the film’s Hawaii set, and remains close with Kaimana.

Even so—given the singular nature of Saelua’s accomplishments, does seeing her story being told in the periphery of someone else feel complicated? “Yeah,” she says in a way that suggests there’s more she’d like to share, but won’t—for now.

“I have been thinking about writing a book,” Saelua adds, a bit sheepishly. Telling her story on her own terms, she’d share the types of experiences one isn’t eager to divulge in a half-hour interview at the end of an all-day press junket. “All people see during the tour is what I choose for them to see, but I am human,” the athlete explains. “I have my weaknesses, and when I am alone and feel overwhelmed, I usually just deal with it myself.” It’s at this point that she gives voice to some of “the ugly realities of having a platform that you not only initially knew nothing about, but had no passion for, because advocacy isn’t a thing that I wanted to pursue as a kid. Who does? I feel like the responsibility was pushed on me because a platform was created when I was recognized by FIFA.”

Since then, Saelua has often placed the priorities of her teammates and larger community above her own. We see this in a scene from Next Goal Wins that was plucked directly from her own life. In it, Saelua reveals that she had paused taking her hormones in hopes that she’ll perform more effectively on the field. “Of course, I chose football,” she tells me. “It’s still my number one passion, my love, so much so that transitioning was just afterthought for me at the time.”

But at age 35, Saelua is looking to shift her priorities. “The older I get, the harder it will be for me to do the transitional work that I need to do in order to feel more like myself when I do retire,” she says. “Until then, it’s still football, and I will still do my best to live as comfortably as I can as a trans woman.”

Saelua was forced to choose between training with her teammates for the upcoming Pacific Games and promoting Next Goal Wins. “I was missing a lot of training and my teammates were starting to not only envy me, but lose respect for me,” she says. But Saelua hopes that the film’s amplification of American Samoa’s football federation and the fa’afafine identity will be worth her absence.

“That’s why I made the decision to do this tour,” she says. “I gave a lot to the football federation and to soccer in American Samoa—21 years with the national team, helping them to make history. My life has been so centered around football, and it still kind of is with the movie being about it, but I realize that I need to step away a little bit to actually let loose and be free and think about myself for a little bit. I’m using this experience as my self-care.”

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