Back in 2003, an up-and-coming soccer-obsessed teen was chosen to represent her country.
She went on to become the world’s first ever openly trans woman to play professionally in a men’s World Cup qualifier.
Her name is Jaiyah Saelua, a 25-year-old from American Samoa.
Before the World Cup starts today (12 June), she has spoken out about the efforts to combat homophobia and discrimination in the sport.
‘Just to get the message across that soccer should be a sport for everyone,’ Saelua has said.
Known for her tough, physical tackles (‘Girls can be fast too’), the 25-year-old wasn’t even aware she was the first trans player to play in a men’s international match before FIFA told her.
‘I didn’t know the significance it had on the world because in Polynesian culture it’s not that big of an issue,’ she told AFP.
‘And I assumed that a lot more trans people in the Pacific region were playing international football. I haven’t met any in my career but I was so sure that there has been [some] before me.’
Saelua is a fa’afafine, a tradition that means ‘way of the woman’. It allows males to choose to be brought up as females.
In 2011, she was instrumental in American Samoa’s first ever win, a victory against Tonga in 2011 in a preliminary World Cup qualifier.
‘[FIFA president] Sepp Blatter wrote me a letter in 2011 recognising me as the first transgender,’ Saelua said.
‘He mentioned that he has a team of athletes that he put together to fight discrimination in any way.’
2015 will be Saelua’s last year playing professional football. The reason is because she wants to start hormone treatment.
‘There are no rules against it but as a personal decision, for me, because I tackle tough, it’s risky for me,’ saying she needs testosterone to ‘play tough’.
‘I feel like I am not getting younger and the older I get, the harder it will be to transition.’
But Saelua is not going away, saying she will continue to fight for acceptance for gay, bi and trans players.
‘I think this is our time,’ she said.