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.”

Thomas Rongen, Jaiyah Saelua and Taika Waititi attend the Next Goal Wins premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

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