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Fa’afafine soccer pioneer to be immortalised in film

Jaiyah Saelu, the first transgender woman to compete in a World Cup Men’s qualifying match, is to be portrayed in a feature film, directed by Kiwi Oscar-winning Director Taika Waititi.

Kaimana, a fa’afafine actor who goes by only one name, will play Saelu in the film, which is scheduled to be released later this year. 

According to an interview Saelua gave to the Guardian newspaper, she said that she had always been very fast and soccer had given her the space to be herself. 

Her first game was on the quiet fields of Fatumafuti, in American Samoa two decades ago and has been perfecting her game ever since. 

She started playing football aged 11 when her school in Fatumafuti formed its first soccer-team, which won the school championship in their first year; she was elected the Most Valuable Player. 

“I was very competitive: I hated losing,” Saelua told the Guardian

Three years later - aged just 14 - Saelua was drafted to train with the senior national team. 

By 16 and while still in school, she made her international debut. Saelua was in the starting eleven by 2011.

The American Samoa national football team has not had it easy on the international stage and its world ranking has plunged to 140. 

In 2001 - when Saelua was just a child - the team became infamous for the worst loss in the history of international football, defeated by Australia 31-0.

But in 2018 Saelua was aiming to make the American Samoan team for the World Cup team but was overlooked because she was undergoing the gender transitioning process at the time.

She now pulls on the boots for the American territory’s women’s team, having completed her medical transition. 

The world’s of football and gender politics have proven easy for Saelua to inhabit. 

“It’s very common, actually, for fa’afafine to play sports […] Samoan society has no limits on what fa’afafine can pursue in life. In anything we choose to do, society in the islands will always view us as assets,” she said

“Every time we stepped on the field, we were judged by our performance as athletes, and not by the way we swing our hips, or how we ran, or how we celebrated.”

She said that being from a culture that was so accepting and nurturing of fa’afafine made it simple for her to accept who she was and live life as a fa’afafine. 

Football has opened the world to Saelua, but it has also exposed her to parts of it that are less accepting of her identity.

She was pulled off the field in 2014 during an international fixture in Hawai’i before half time because her presence angered those in the crowd and opposition. 

“I have become somewhat of an icon for transgender inclusion in sport, and so came the responsibilities of using this platform to help the rest of the world accept, respect and appreciate people like myself,” she said

Kaimana will play Saelu in “Next Goal Wins” a comedy directed by Waititi about the struggles of the national team. It is based on a 2014 documentary of the same name.

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