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The odd squad

Jaiyah Saelua sits on a wooden bench in the car park of a low-rent motel in Apia, the capital of the Pacific island of Samoa, and makes the first of several startling revelations: “I want to travel the world and dance.”

The tall, lean centre back is preparing for a moment that many footballers would kill for: a World Cup qualifier for their national team. The fact that the national team is American Samoa, officially the worst on the planet, is by the by. Yet Saelua didn’t always want to be a footballer and isn’t sure whether to continue with football after this match. “Anything modern, jazz,” continues the player, a performing arts student at the University of Hawaii, “maybe a little bit of ballet.”

If Saelua doesn’t sounds like your typical footballer that’s because she is not. Johnny ‘Jaiyah’ Saelua is a member of the fa’fafina, a biologically male third sex that identifies itself as female and is largely accepted in Samoan and Polynesian cultures. She is transgender and about to make sporting history for a team that needs all the help that it can get.

Qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil began in May 2011, just ten months after the 2010 final. The road to Brazil is a long one when you’re one of the world’s footballing minnows, and over half the world’s population has been eliminated already with the likes of China, India and Pakistan falling at the first hurdle. But nowhere are the minnows more prevalent than in Oceania: and American Samoa is the minnow’s minnow.

The team’s record makes for depressing reading. Played 30, lost 30. They have only scored 12 times overall, conceding 229 goals in the process. Most famously they lost 31-0 to Australia in 2001, a world record that distilled the reputation of the American Samoa team into little more than an international joke – the YouTube video of their rout has had two million hits to date. The debacle against Australia prompted the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) to rethink how it accommodated some of the most underdeveloped and underpopulated footballing nations on the planet. It devised a four-team, round robin tournament between its four lowest ranked sides; American Samoa and Samoa (joint last, 204th on FIFA’s rankings), Tonga (second last, 202nd) and then favourites
the Cook Islands (196th). The winner would get the chance to face the
likes of Papua New Guinea in the second round.

But no team had quite the same reputation as American Samoa. Earlier this year the United States Soccer Federation agreed to loan out Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to the island, defined as an unincorporated territory of the United States and which supplies more US servicemen per capita than any territory in the States. Rongen cut his teeth in US soccer in his early twenties. At 22 he left Ajax Amsterdam to take part in the nascent North American Soccer League, where he played with Cruyff and Beckenbauer. He then stayed on to coach DC United to the MLS title and become America’s under-20 coach.

Rongen sits out in the midday sun as Saelua talks to a nearby camera crew. He has only been with the team for three weeks and was shocked with what he found. “I’d never seen a lower standard for international football,” he admits when asked what kind of set-up he arrived to. “I inherited this team and there were five guys 30 or 40 pounds overweight who couldn’t play even 20 minutes. I had to do a lot of things. Technically we’ve got a little better and we’ve got a long way to go, but I think we can compete.”

The biggest hurdle for Rongen, however, was how to deal with a team that had been psychologically scarred from a 100 per cent losing streak. “The biggest part we had to change was the mentality. There are guys like the goalkeeper who played during that 31-0 game. He’s starting tomorrow. This guy’s got some major demons going on, he is totally driven by the 31-0, he wants to erase this for himself and for his family. Every time you talk to him it comes back. He gets confronted where he lives, in Seattle. People say: ‘American Samoa? Oh, you’re the guy that gave up 31 goals.’ There are some incredible scars. A lot of the guys have lost every game. Not 2-1, or 3-2 but they’d get their asses kicked. So there was a defeatist attitude which I really had to change. But now I feel we are a team that is starting to believe.”

One of the biggest shocks for Rongen was meeting Jaiyah Saelua. “On the island there is a great acceptance of people who are ‘hes’ but are actually ‘shes’,” he says. “Essentially I’ve got a female starting at centre back. Just imagine the abuse in England, Spain or Russia.”

Saelua made her debut for American Samoa aged 14. “I read somewhere that it was a record when I was drafted into the national team,” she says. “I was reserve for the whole tournament and I had to leave early because I was still in high school but the coach threw me on for ten minutes.”

Whilst football pretty much everywhere else in the world still struggles to come to terms with racial and homophobic abuse from the terraces – not to mention from the players themselves – Saelua hasn’t seen any of it.

“I haven’t had any problems with the opposition teams,” she stresses. “My team mates don’t make me feel different because I am the way I am. It is what anybody needs – to feel wanted within a team. That is why I always do my best. I can’t let them down.”

The role of the fa’fafina in Samoan culture is a complex one. Fa’fafina means “to be like a woman” and although widely accepted, there are still problems. According to 30-year-old Alex Su’a, who heads the Samoa Fa’afafine Society, there are 1,500 fa’afafine in Samoa and American Samoa.

“To be fa’fafina you have to be Samoan, born a man, feel you are a woman, be sexually attracted to males and, importantly, be proud to be called fa’fafina,” Su’a says. “The fa’afafine are culturally accepted. They have a role in Samoan society. They are the caretakers of the elders because their brothers and sisters get married, but the fa’afafine traditionally don’t.”

Homosexuality is still illegal in Samoa, and there is no legal definition for the fa’fafina, meaning that they do not enjoy the same rights. In American Samoa, meanwhile, Jaiyah Saelua enjoys the legal freedom to be who she wants, something that Alex Su’a is still fighting for in Samoa.

As Saelua prophetically points out: “We can do what the boys do and what the girls do.”

The next day American Samoa and the national team of the tiny pacific island of Tonga enter the pitch at the J.S. Blatter Stadium for the first match of Oceania’s 2014 World Cup qualification tournament to be greeted by a crowd of just 18 people. On one side is a small stand, surrounded by grassy hills and, beyond that, thick forest. The low turnout can be explained by the fact that it’s a midweek 3pm kick off, but equally because this is a rugby country in a footballing world. The Rugby Sevens tournament in Australia features a Samoa side that won the title in 2007 – the event is commemorated on the Samoan ten tala note – and the nation would rather watch the egg-chasers.

As kick off approaches, coach Rongen still isn’t sure whether he has made any headway with his team. “I still don’t know when the whistle blows how this team will react,” he says. “Will they choke again? Will they give goals away? I don’t know what the response from my starting 11 will be.” Yet regardless of the outcome, one of Rongen’s 11 has made history even before a ball was kicked. Jaiyah Saelua has become the first transgender player to begin a World Cup game.

The match begins in cagey fashion. No one wants to make a mistake. But as the minutes progress it become clear that something is very different. American Samoa aren’t being ripped apart. They are holding their own.

And then they go into uncharted territory as a speculative long-range shot somehow slips under the Tongan goalkeeper. American Samoa go into the lead for the first time ever in a football match. The man in charge of keeping the score doesn’t change the score on his manually operated board for a few minutes, such is his disbelief.

And then it gets stranger. Shalom Luani races clear and slides the ball past the onrushing keeper, who clatters into him as the ball trickles over the line. It’s 2-0 and American Samoa are cruising, until Tonga rediscover the form that made them pre-game favourites. They score late on and the last few minutes are hell. Thomas Rongen prowls the touchline, shouting himself hoarse. Ironically, he’s shouting for his players to stay calm. But then the final whistle blows.

After 31 attempts, American Samoa have their first victory. For one player it means more than most. Goalkeeper Nicky Salapu has waited ten years for this moment. He is on his knees in the penalty box, screaming into his gloves at a pitch somewhere between grief and ecstasy. He only stops to punch himself in the forehead, as if to check that this is really happening.

“I feel like a champ right now!” shouts Salapu tearfully. In front of him his teammates, unsure about the dynamics and the etiquette of victory, run in circles around coach Rongen. A victory dance, the haka, is performed for the first time.

Saelua is also crying after having played a blinding game in which she continually snuffed out the Tongan forward line. Rongen grabs her and Salapu to congratulate them and bring them into the centre of the celebrations. Before the match he had said: “If we just manage to get the demons out of Nicky’s head that’s enough for me.”

But now the game has changed. Now they believe.

 

A few days later American Samoa take on the Cook Islands, a nation of just 24,000 people. For the second match in a row they take the lead against the pre-tournament favourites. Now the team, and the crowd, are not weighed down by the pressure. They look comfortable opposite a team full of professional players from New Zealand and Australia.

Nicky Salapu even has time to goad the Cook Islands’ striker. Every time he receives the ball he waits a few moments and takes the ball to the corner of the penalty box, waits a few moments more, and then picks it up a split second before the onrushing attacker gets there.

“Essentially I’ve got a female starting at centre back. Just imagine the abuse in England, Spain or Russia”

The Cook Islands’ striker becomes so infuriated he knocks Salapu over, receiving a yellow card. American Samoa hold their own, but then defender Tala Luvu scores the best goal of the tournament. In his own net. A cross is floated in and Luvu powers the ball in with his head. The rest of the match peters out as both sides settle for a draw.

In the changing room, Rongen’s face is livid: he’s just waiting for someone to ignite his fury. That someone is Salapu.

“Can we do the haka now, coach?” he asks meekly as the team gather their things in silence.

“No Nicky, we only have a
haka if we win,” snaps Rongen,
before shouting: “are you happy with the draw?”

Salapu looks back blankly,  unsure what the right thing is to say. This is a man, after all, who has picked the ball out of his net more than 200 times for his country. He had dreamt of one day drawing a match, but it had always seemed so fanciful.

“ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THAT?” Rongen shouts.

“Er, yeah. Yes,” Salapu says, shrugging.

“Well, that’s why you didn’t win a goddamn thing until I got here,” Rongen replies, before herding his team on to the bus to return to the motel.

 

No one had suffered more by playing for American Samoa than Nicky Salapu. Back home in Seattle, where he works at a Safeway supermarket while coaching soccer in the evenings, he was still haunted by that night against Australia. One coping mechanism he had devised was to fire up a two-player ‘Fifa’ match on his Xbox, choose American Samoa versus Australia and disconnect the second controller so that he could fill his boots.

“I used to score 20 more, make it 50-0!” laughs Salapu back at the motel. “It’s amazing, sometimes you just have to pray for a miracle to happen. For all the things that happened, like the 31-0. In Seattle, all the players [from his local club] make jokes out of me. Now I can say: ‘We won. Look at the Fifa website.’ I’ve been carrying it around for ten years.”

There is one little-known fact about that fateful match. Confusion about eligibility shortly before the game meant that most of the team were barred from playing owing to their Samoan citizenship. The team that played was made up largely of 17- and 18-year-old youth players. Only Salapu, who made 20 saves in the first ten minutes and earned a trial with an Australian side as a result, remains. “I feel like I’ve been let out of prison” he says. “I want my son to grow up without kids chasing him around saying ‘Your dad lost 31-0’… but if we win this tournament, we will
get to Brazil and I would die as a happy person!”

 

It’s the morning of the final match, a Samoan classico. Improbably American Samoa and Samoa are joint top of the group on equal points: one of them will go through to the next round.  A draw isn’t good enough. Rongen has gathered his team in the dining hall of the motel. He’s going through his tactical plan on a white board, sticking up paper diagrams to illustrate the runs that Samoa’s forwards will be making.

“People say: ‘American Samoa? Oh, you’re the guy that gave up 31 goals.’ There are some
incredible scars”

“We are going to win all our battles,” he tells the room. “And if we win all our battles, we’ll win the war – and this is a war, for 90 minutes. Peace afterwards, respect before. It is going to be tough. You are ready for this. You have put yourself in the position of winning this tournament. Give everything for your country. That’s all we can ask.”

The JS Blatter Stadium is surrounded by dark cloud as tropical rain falls like bullets. The OFC officials even suggest that the match be postponed. But the clouds clear and the rains stop as kick off approaches. In the dressing room, Thomas Rongen walks in a circle, urging each player to believe they can win. American Samoa’s governor has flown in for the match and gives his own words of encouragement. The team prays together before going out into the rain for the national anthems.

The players sings the national anthem, ‘Amerika Samoa’; Johnny Saelua stands tallest and sings louder than anyone else.

“Your name forever holds, your legends of yore,” they sing. “Stand up and be counted.”

Rongen has done all he can do. He stands on the sidelines, his hand pressed to his heart as he listens to the anthem of his adopted country. The rain storm which had threatened to engulf the stadium has left, leaving the pitch flooded in places. No one is sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The referee blows his whistle.

It is almost all one-way traffic. Samoa has several professionals in their side, mostly from New Zealand and Australia. Their coach is also motivated by escaping the gravitational pull of that 31-0 match against Australia. He was in charge of American Samoa at the time.

Nicky Salapu is the star of the show. He makes acrobatic save after save. He drops nothing. Each kick finds an American Samoan shirt. He is unbeatable.

Half an hour passes, then half time, then an hour. Still no goals. And then the moment where it all changes. American Samoa breaks. In a heartbeat a striker is through on goal, one-on-one with the keeper. He sidesteps, launches a ferocious shot and… hits the post. It is to be their only chance of the game. Despite Salapu’s continued heroics in the second half, heartbreak comes in the ninetieth minute. Silao Malo breaks through and slips the ball under Salapu. Samoa win 1-0.  American Samoa’s dream is over.

The heavy rains roll in as the American Samoan team do their final haka. Rongen doesn’t object. After all, they have come further than anyone could have imagined. Rongen’s contract ends the day they are knocked out: it would have been crazily optimistic to hand him anything else. But he will move on to pastures new, his love of the game revigorated.

“Nicky Salapu is the star of the show. He makes acrobatic save after save. Each kick finds an American Samoan shirt”

“I’m so proud of what this team has accomplished. That win that rebounded around the world. I could not be prouder of a group of guys that came from nowhere,” he says as the team sings behind him. “It’s the most rewarding [job]. I’ve changed in this short amount of time. I’ve gone through a spiritual journey. How can you not believe?”

Rongen is dragged into the crowd by his team, as they beg him to lead the chants of ‘Amerika Samoa’. Nicky Salapu has one last thing he needs to do before he can close the door on that night in 2001 for good. “When I go home I’m going to play just one more [Xbox] challenge against Australia,” he says. “Just one more. I’ll win 31-0… And put the video on YouTube.”

And what of Jaiyah Saelua, the fa’fafina centre back?

“I don’t know if I have a future in soccer,” she says on the side of the pitch. “I want to concentrate on my dance and see where that takes me.”

Jaiyah Saelua, Nicky Salapu and the rest of the American Samoa team walk out into the night as the rains fall, their heads held high.

 


Thirty One Nil: From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the Amazing Untold Story of World Cup Qualification (A&C Black) by James Montague will be released in 2014.

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