American Samoa’s Nicky Salapu and Jaiyah Saelua on their love of the game
Apia, SAMOA — It’s not been a good start for American Samoa at the Pacific Games. Some would say it’s been an expected one, with losses to New Caledonia (5-0) and Fiji (9-0), to open up the campaign. But, two who have captured the headlines for the team have been returning goalkeeper and captain, Nicky Salapu, and central defender Jaiyah Saelua.
Despite both being away from international football, they keep coming back. Both claim their passion for the game as their main driving force.
“I always have the passion for it. First of all I would like to say thanks to God for giving me the strength to play. I would also like to thank my wife and my son Dylan for helping me to come on this trip. The whole purpose of me coming over here is making my family proud and to get one more chance to stand on the pitch and to enjoy the game that I love. I can’t even go without playing soccer,” Salapu tells Football in Oceania after the second match against Fiji.
Saelua seconds that:
“Every time I try to step away from football, something just pulls me back. It could be my passion to play, and just seeing the development of the federation and how passionate they are about developing the sport. It makes me want to continue to be a part of that. I feel like our role as a senior player is to come back and help as much as we can.
“That’s why Nicky’s back and that’s why Ramin [Ott] was dying to come but couldn’t, due to his military responsibility. Our heart and souls are here with the federation, because they try so much to develop, but there isn’t much that keeps the athletes in American Samoa. As much as Nicky and I say that this would be our last time, trust me, four years coming we’re gonna want to be right back on the field with the boys,” she tells Football in Oceania.
Saelua is the world’s first transgender football player to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match [in 2011], and she has since become an ambassador for equality. After her transformation from a man to a woman she didn’t think she would step back on the field.
“I kinda gave up hope after I started my transition. I tried to get back into competition and it didn’t work out very well. I got cut from the team, I knew my performance wasn’t as good as it was before, but then I went off hormones for a bit and I got back into training. I moved back to American Samoa and was motivated by the football federation to get back on the field. Especially the coach, he was the main driving force for me coming back to the field as a player and I appreciate that drive. I’m not to where I was before, but I’m getting closer and closer as the competition goes on.”
She says the role as an ambassador was never something she aspired to be, it just “kind of happened” because she happened to be the first transgender.
“I’m nothing but a football player for my country, it’s my passion and it’s what I love to do. It just so happens that I’m transgender, in western terminology, in American Samoa culture I’m recognized as a fa’afafine. To advocate for LGBT athletes and advocating for Pacific representation. All of that have been some of the highlights of my life. […] Being the first transgender has opened up the door to the international arena where I could advocate for something bigger than myself.”
Salapu says he loves Saelua and loves playing with her. And he even reveals a little secret about their past.
“I love Jaiyah, I used to coach her when she was young. In eighth grade. We won the [school] championship and we built up that chemistry, that friendship. And then the first time we played together in 2004, over here in Samoa [2006 OFC Nations Cup qualifying, ed.], it was like the best moment ever. [..] I support her and I love her to death. I love playing with her, she’s my inspiration, everywhere we go to play. Half man, half girl, playing against real men, strong men, she can compete, you know. I give her all the respect, she’s awesome. She’s an amazing person,” he says.
As for the results at this tournament, while it hasn’t gone their way so far, the young American Samoa squad could be capable of good things, Saelua believes.
“They’re really young but from our game with New Caledonia and our training in American Samoa, I noticed there was a different kind of, I don’t know what it is… we had the spirit, back in the day, and these kids have the skills and technique.
“It’s far from what it needs to be in order to come and be actual competitors with countries like New Caledonia and Fiji but it’s steps towards the right directions. It was evidenced by our game against New Caledonia, aside from those two penalties in the box, it could have been 3-0 game and I think we gave them a run for their money,” the center back, who was rested against Fiji, says.
Veteran goalkeeper Salapu admits that it’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of big losses, and the 38-year-old says communicating with his young and inexperienced squad is sometimes a challenge.
“I’m giving all the honor and thanks to the boys, because they’re young. I can tell them to move forward, sideways, mark a man, then I get frustrated and losing my voice trying to communicate with them, but they couldn’t communicate back to me with action.
“It’s really hard for me to keep going if it’s not working. It’s just a start for most of the players, but my term will be over soon, but I’m still loving to play. Frustrated, passionate and excited, you know, but at the end of it, you still know the game,” he says.
The next game for the American Samoa squad will be against non-FIFA side Tuvalu, whom they lost to at the Pacific Games in 2011. Now the American Samoans are back for revenge, and Saelua is confident.
“I think we’re up for more than revenge. Tuvalu is giving us an opportunity to win. Not to assume anything, but I feel very confident that we can beat them. It’s going to be a good game,” she believes.