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Saelua’s homecoming

Jaiyah Saelua wants to give back to the football community in American Samoa.

Jaiyah Saleua has always been destined for greatness.

But her star rose when she played a starring role in the documentary Next Goal Wins, which followed the American Samoa national team and captured their first victory of FIFA World Cup Qualifying in 2011.

Born and raised in Leone, American Samoa Saelua, a faafafine, set the wheels of history in motion on her own that same year when she became the first transgender to play in an official FIFA-sanctioned tournament.

While American Samoa didn’t make it to the World Cup, Saelua remained in the spotlight doing press for the launch of the film, before becoming the only Pacific Islander appointed to the jury of the FIFA Diversity Award.

Saelua’s start in football came as an 11-year-old kicking the ball around with the neighbourhood kids.

However despite a love and passion for the game, and acceptance in Oceania, other region’s are still catching up.

“I have not been involved a lot with the sport in recent years for a couple of reasons,” she explained.

“Because I have been concentrating a lot on my transition, and living in Hawaii, I wasn’t really accepted there in the sport arena as a faafafine, and transgender.”

Saelua said it led to a tough period where she felt estranged from the game.

“It was a lack of confidence to play, a lack of opportunities to play,” she explained.

“It was hard for me to find a team that would allow me to play the way I am. So slowly I have drifted away from the sport.”

Having since moved back to her home village in American Samoa to fulfil her familial obligations, Saelua’s love affair with football is slowly reigniting.

“I moved back home in November last year, and it’s been so comfortable with people knowing I am accepted here with my people and my culture.”

Having experienced acceptance, as well as discrimination, made Saelua a perfect candidate for the jury of FIFA’s Diversity Award.

“I am proud being a representative on the jury, having someone from Oceania on it.

“The acceptance is there. The respect is there in a lot of Pacific Island cultures.”

Being based back on home soil has given Saelua a chance to reflect on the opportunities she’s had and how she wants to give back to the game and community which has given so much to her.

“Now I feel I need to be more involved with the development of soccer here with Football Federation American Samoa.”

Saelua was at the Federation headquarters in January taking in the OFC Champions League 2018 Qualifiers alongside former national teammate turned NFL star Shalom Luani.

“It’s so nice to see Football Federation American Samoa hosting more international matches, it’s inspiring,” she said.

And Saelua is one person who knows a thing or two about inspiration.

“I felt so proud back in 2011,” she reminisces of the national team’s exploits.

“We were there to represent American Samoa and we did everything to the best we could.”

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