From the high of a bronze medal at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup to the low of sitting on the sideline for over a year nursing a shoulder injury, Jayda Stewart has experienced it all.
Isolated, undervalued, and struggling not only with her place in football, but with her general wellbeing, the 20-year-old was close to giving up on the game.
“You come off playing a World Cup and then you get injured, you’re out for a wee bit and I didn’t really think I was going to come back in.
But then I did, and I’m glad I did! But it has been a really rough road for me.”
For Stewart, the switch of allegiance from New Zealand to Samoa has been a game changer.
“It was an easy decision for me to make, I’ll be honest,” Stewart said.
“It was rough for me in New Zealand, I struggled. I struggled with the coaching staff, not on a personal level, but I just struggled with them because obviously I wasn’t starting. But it was different, it wasn’t a comfortable environment for me and I didn’t feel welcome.
“It’s not their fault, but I belong here. I found my calling, I found where I’m from, I found the people I love being surrounded by and that’s just me.”
Although grateful for the opportunities and experiences she had representing New Zealand, Stewart made a call to put her personal wellbeing first, and it has been a godsend for the current leading goal scorer at the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji.
With roots across New Zealand, Samoa, Germany, Austria and Scotland, Stewart is relishing the opportunity to explore her heritage with Samoa and Māori Football Aotearoa, and jump across the different cultures that make her unique.
“It’s been really cool learning my culture and I’ve finally got to a setting with Samoa where I can learn how to speak, learn about my culture and where I’m from. I love it.”
Being surrounded by like-minded individuals who share some of the same struggles she has is what Stewart appreciates most about her Samoa experience.
“They’re a lovely group of girls. We all get on really well and it’s nice having girls who understand you from the other sides of the road because we do, as Pasifika people and as Māori people, we do get treated differently whether people want to believe it or not.
“It has been hard growing up playing football as a Māori girl, as a Samoan girl, just because you get looked at differently. I’ve noticed it my whole life, I know a lot of other girls do too.”
Stewart returned to football in early 2021 with the Māori Football Aotearoa North vs. South series, calling it a stepping stone to her football comeback.
“It helped me come back in when I first came back after surgery and injury, it was a chance to rest myself.
“I think club this year has really helped me too because I’m with a strong team, Coastal Spirit, and they helped me test my fitness to get here.
“My coach back home, Juan [Chang Urrea], really helped me through it too. He helped me get here and I’m proud to be representing him because he’s the first person to put my hand up for this, I’m just so grateful to be here because of him.”
Stewart is equally proud to be representing her family, and said the environment she’s in now means she’s also having fun doing it.
When asked how important it is to actually enjoy the football, Stewart didn’t hesitate.
“One hundred per cent that’s why we play.
“If you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t be playing because why would you? Why would you want to do that to yourself? If you don’t thoroughly enjoy it, if you don’t want to get better, I don’t recommend you play.”
She said the Samoan squad is enjoying each other’s company and that’s reflected in their results.
“The girls want to get better, they want to push themselves to get to the top. We want to win.
“That’s how it is, and you have fun while you’re doing it. Our girls are having a lot of fun right now.
“For me, I’m enjoying because I represent my family, I represent who I am, and I’ve only just found this recently.
“I do it for my brother, for my mother, for my sister, for my nan, all of them. I want to represent them as best I can and football makes me happy so I continued on with it.”