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How Banyana Banyana Coach Desiree Ellis Has Become A Game Changer

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From being in the presence of two South African presidents to high-fiving the third, South Africa’s national women’s football team coach Desiree Ellis is determined to grab headlines at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. 


As the country celebrates 25 years of democracy since the fall of apartheid, South Africa’s women’s football team Banyana Banyana will make a landmark appearance at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, to be held between June 7 and July 7 in France.

 The years of toil, tears and sweaty perseverance beyond the pitch are indescribable for the team’s coach Desiree Ellis months after qualifying for the acclaimed international football championship.

When we meet her, she vividly recalls the qualifying match, one of the most defining moments of her career.

With 10 minutes left to the final whistle, as tension mounted on the field, Ellis ascended a ladder for a closer look as history unfolded, that day in 2018 in Ghana.

Banyana Banyana Coach Desiree Ellis. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“I knew we were 10 minutes away but in football, anything can happen,” she says.

Ellis recalls a previous World Cup qualifier when things went completely wrong.

In 2014, Banyana lost to Nigeria during a semi-final qualifying game. After the match, the mood was somber as the team drove home, she recounts. It’s moments like those that make this 2019 qualification that much more precious for Ellis.

As they faced Mali’s national team, The Eagles, in the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) tournament hosted in Ghana, a tired and overworked Banyana team played to their fullest leaving Ellis with no choice but to scream in celebration of their ultimate victory.

 “I tried to stay calm so that the players could be calm. They kept shouting ‘manage the game’ and we kept control of the game fantastically. We were leading two-nil and when they said two minutes I could’ve screamed.

“When the final whistle went, the scenes were amazing. Oh goodness, you just didn’t know where to run, who to hug or what to do,” Ellis exults.

A solid defence strategy mixed with a patriotic passion for both the game and teamwork ensured an eventual win. 

“Many of them were there in 2014 when we didn’t qualify and for a lot of them, it might have been the last opportunity to go to a world cup. That really drove them. We needed to take it seriously and make sure we don’t go to the third and fourth place.”

Armed with renewed confidence and a French translation book to speak and understand basic French, Ellis is equipped to lead the women’s team to possible glory at the international championship this month.

 She owes her passion for the sport to her community where she started playing at the tender age of six. Back then, little did she know how far soccer would take her – or how far she would take soccer. 

If that six-year-old girl from Salt River, a Cape Town suburb, had looked into a crystal ball at the time, she would have seen herself lead the team she once played for, and also rub shoulders with three South African presidents.

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 “When you talk about significant moments, it most probably is your first game, your first cap or being made captain but I think those are small milestones. I have had the privilege of having lunch with the late President Nelson Mandela, with a lot of other athletes in Cape Town, at his residence,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

Ellis has also received a presidential silver medal from president Thabo Mbeki and interacted with former president Jacob Zuma when she was an ambassador for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. 

“We played a game in Cape Town during the World Cup. The game was 10 minutes before the Argentina game, and I came off the field as president Zuma came on and we high-fived each other.

“It comes with the work you put in. I don’t think many people can be fortunate to say that they have interacted with all three presidents.”

Ellis regards the role leaders play as an important one in relation to sport, particularly when it comes to creating opportunities for the marginalized.

“When president Nelson Mandela was released, I got the opportunity to play national football. Prior to that I never played. I was 30 years old,” she says.

Her unwavering focus on the game, she adds, and the many sacrifices she has had to make along the way changed her story from just playing soccer with boys on the streets of Salt River to achieving national glory.

Banyana Banyana Coach Desiree Ellis holds a portrait of the team in 1993. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Her career goals even left her financially vulnerable, at times. At the peak of her football career, a young Ellis, who worked at a local butchery, had left for a football weekend and could not make it back to her workplace in time to mix spices. That lapse resulted in her losing her job.

  “Knowing your worth can open doors,” she advises as she speaks to us at the state-of-the-art headquarters of the South African Football Association (SAFA) in Johannesburg.

“Our federation is excited that they took the opportunity to appoint female coaches for female teams. Most importantly, it is not just making those decisions in appointing us, but also supporting us.”

Support does not only come from management but also fans who play a role in encouraging the women to reach their potential – both on and off the field.

“We played in Cameroon in 2016 and the stadiums were packed, we played in Ghana and there were full stadiums. We came to Port Elizabeth and they [fans] were the 12th and 13th players for Banyana. The best fans we had [were] in Durban. It was absolutely amazing, and it [support] hasn’t only grown on the stands but on the field as well. The Under-17 team qualified for the World Cup, so it shows how the game has grown,” says Ellis.

Although local leagues for women have increased on home soil, there needs to be more opportunities that give African players a chance to break into the sport and develop their global competitive edge.

It starts with prioritizing junior levels.

“Players are getting opportunities to study. I remember back when we were playing, you were either unemployed or you had a job and 80 to 90 percent of the players were unemployed back then. If you look at the national team now, 80 to 90 percent of the players have a degree or are currently still studying. Players are getting opportunities to study or play abroad. We have a lot of players playing abroad but I think more can be done.”

As a national asset, Ellis argues that focusing on the game is far more important than worrying about issues that are beyond control.

Once focus is lost, it manifests in all areas. 

“When people ask me about the money, I tell them I am a technical person. You tend to concentrate more on your job as a coach and leave the rest, because you can get side-tracked by all the other things. We don’t worry about those things,” she says.

Desiree Ellis and Portia Modise’s portraits at the SAFA headquarters. Picture: Gypsenia Lion

“As a technical person, your job is to prepare the team, [use] the training sessions to improve the individual and the team. That is why we have a manager, but when it influences team performance, I come in.”

As the national team jets off to face world soccer, Ellis is working round the clock to ensure that the team will make the nation proud.

“Coaching is not just blowing the whistle, there are other things in between. You need a schedule; people want to know what you are doing. You have to do reports as well, so it is not about blowing the whistle at the end of the game.”

It’s also about analyzing the opponents with the technical team and coming up with strategies and a definitive plan of action.

“Playing against top countries is difficult as they play regularly against other top countries. That is where you want to measure yourself and that is where you really want to go out and bloom. People call it the group of death, but it is what it is. We will just take it one game at a time.

“If we do more, football in Africa can only grow and grow.”

It seems more work happens off the field than on the field, and Ellis, who prides herself on her technical prowess, hopes Banyana will pull up its socks and bring home a glistening  cup.

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The Springboks And The Cup Of Good Hope

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After their epic win beating England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan on November 2, the Springboks returned home to South Africa, undertaking a nation-wide tour, in an open-top bus, holding high the Webb Ellis Cup. In this image, in the township of Soweto, they pass the iconic Vilakazi Street with throngs of screaming, cheering residents and Springbok fans lining the street. The sport united the racially-divided country. For the third time in history, the South African national rugby team was crowned world champions.

Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

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Déjà vu: South Africa Back to Winning

Our Publisher reflects on the recent Springbok victory in Yokohoma, Japan

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Rugby World Cup 2019, Final: England v South Africa Mtach viewing at Nelson Mandela Square

By Rakesh Wahi, Publisher
FORBES AFRICA

Rugby is as foreign to me as cricket is to the average American. However, having lived in South Africa for 15 years, there is no way to avoid being pulled into the sport. November 2, 2019, is therefore a date that will be celebrated in South Africa’s sporting posterity. In many ways, it’s déjà vu for South Africans; at a pivotal time in history, on June 24, 1995, the Springboks beat the All Blacks (the national rugby team of New Zealand) in the final of the World Cup. The game united a racially-divided country coming out of apartheid and at the forefront of this victory was none other than President Nelson Mandela or our beloved Madiba. In a very symbolic coincidence, 24 years later, history repeated itself.

South Africans watched with pride as Siya Kolisi lifted the gold trophy in Yokohama, Japan, as had Francois Pienaar done so 24 years ago in Johannesburg. My mind immediately reflected on this extremely opportune event in South Africa’s history.

The last decade has not been easy; the country has slipped into economic doldrums from which there seems to be no clear path ahead. The political transition from the previously corrupt regime has not been easy and it has been disheartening to see a rapid deterioration in the economic condition of the country. The sad reality is that there literally seems to be no apparent light at the end of the tunnel; with blackouts and load-shedding, a currency that is amongst the most volatile in the world, rising unemployment and rising crime amongst many other issues facing the country.

Rakesh Wahi, Publisher Forbes Africa

Something needed to change. There was a need for an event to change this despondent state of mind and the South African rugby team seems to have given a glimmer of hope that could not have come at a more opportune time. As South African flags were flying all over the world on November 2, something clicked to say that there is hope ahead and if people come together under a common mission, they can be the change that they want to see.

Isn’t life all about hope? Nothing defies gravity and just goes up; Newton taught us that everything that goes up will come down. Vicissitudes are a part of life and the true character of people, society or a nation is tested on how they navigate past these curve balls that make us despair. As we head into 2020, it is my sincere prayer that we see a new dawn and a better future in South Africa with renewed vigor and vitality.

Talking about sports and sportsmen, there is another important lesson that we need to take away. Having been a sportsman all my life, I have had a belief that people who have played team sports like cricket, rugby, soccer, hockey etc make great team players and leaders. However, other sports like golf, diving and squash teach you focus. In all cases, the greatest attribute of all is how to reset your mind after adversity. While most of us moved on after amateur sports to find our place in the world, the real sportspeople to watch and learn from are professionals. It is their grit and determination.

My own belief is that one must learn how to detach from a rear view mirror. You cannot ignore what is behind you because that is your history; you must learn from it. Our experiences are unique and so is our history. It must be our greatest teacher. However, that’s where it must end. As humans, we must learn to break the proverbial rear view mirror and stop worrying about the past. You cannot change what is behind you but you can influence and change what is yet to come.

I had the good fortune of playing golf with Chester Williams (former rugby player who was the first person of color to play for the Springboks in the historic win in 1995 and sadly passed away in September 2019) more than once at the SuperSport Celebrity Golf Shootout.

Chester played his golf fearlessly; perhaps the way he led his life. He would drive the ball 300 meters and on occasion went into the woods or in deep rough. Psychologically, as golfers know, this sets you back just looking at a bad lie, an embedded or unplayable ball or a dropped shot in a hazard. For a seasoned golfer, it is not the shot that you have hit but the one that you are about to hit. Chester has a repertoire of recovery shots and always seemed to be in the game even after some wayward moments. There is a profound lesson in all of this. You have to blank your mind from the negativity or sometimes helplessness and bring a can do and positive frame of reference back into your game (and life). Hit that recovery shot well and get back in the game; that’s what champions do.

We need to now focus our attention on the next shot and try and change the future than stay in the past.

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The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players 2019-20: LeBron James Scores Record $92 Million

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NBA salaries have skyrocketed in recent years, but the biggest stars have earned more off the court than on it to this point in their careers. LeBron James, who tops the ranking for the 2019-2020 season, has made more than twice as much from endorsements than his $270 million in playing salary over his first 16 years. Kevin Durant’s on-court earnings of $187 million in 12 seasons is dwarfed by his current ten-year, $275 million Nike deal.

At $92 million, including salary and endorsements, James is the NBA’s highest-paid player for the sixth straight year. It is a record haul for an active basketball player. Nike is his biggest backer, and the company is naming a new research lab at its Beaverton, Oregon, corporate campus after James. Last month, the 17th iteration of his Nike signature shoe, the LeBron XVII, hit stores.

The four-time NBA MVP added a pair of endorsement deals in 2019 with Rimowa luggage and Walmart, which joined Coca-Cola, Beats By Dre, Blaze Pizza and NBA 2K in his sponsorship stable.

He also has a budding digital media company, Uninterrupted, and a production firm, SpringHill Entertainment, which will release a sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan vehicle Space Jam in conjunction with Warner Bros. in 2021. All of the off-court work is worth an estimated $55 million for James this season.

The Los Angeles Lakers star’s comments about the NBA’s geopolitical mess in China also reveal the precarious position everyone in the league is in as political unrest in Hong Kong shows no signs of abating.

As the league’s 74th regular season tipped off Tuesday night, the NBA was still reeling from the crisis set off by a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to free speech, but some players didn’t, including James, who called Morey “misinformed or not really educated” on the situation. “We love China,” said Rockets point guard James Harden.

It was a rare misstep for two of the league’s more media-savvy stars, both of whom have close ties to China. Adidas, which has Harden as the face of its basketball business, generated more revenue in China last year than in North America, and the Rockets are China’s most popular team after drafting native son Yao Ming in 2002.

Nike’s China revenue topped $6 billion during the last fiscal year, and the country is a growth leader for the brand. James has represented Nike on 15 off-season trips to China. The sports giant pays James more than $30 million annually to pitch its products around the globe.

And the threat of losing its growth trajectory in China could have far-reaching consequences for team valuations.

But back at home, the financials of NBA franchises remain solid, which is good for player salaries. The league’s salary cap is soaring, fueled largely by the nine-year, $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT signed in 2014.

NBA players are entitled to 51% of the league’s “basketball-related income” as laid out in the collective bargaining agreement. The rich TV deal and budding international business means 46 players will earn a playing salary of at least $25 million this season, according to Spotrac. The $25 million club had zero members five years ago. And unlike in the NFL, every dollar is guaranteed upon signing.

The NBA's Highest-Paid Players
The Highest-Paid NBA Players - Dataviz

On-court salaries in the NBA are capped based on a player’s number of years in the league and accolades earned in cases in which an award like MVP entitles them to a bigger percentage of a team’s salary cap.

So the pecking order for the elite stars is ultimately determined by their off-court income, with the shoe deal the biggest component of those earnings. There are ten active NBA players who will make at least $10 million from their shoe contracts this year, by Forbes’ count.

Stephen Curry comes in at No. 2 on the earnings list this year and is expected to generate $85 million this season, including $45 million off the court. Under Armour represents nearly half of his off-court income.

Curry’s $40.2 million salary from the Golden State Warriors is the highest in the history of the NBA; he’s in the third season of the five-year, $201 million contract he signed in 2017. Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, has a development deal with Sony Pictures.

Unanimous’ first movie, Breakthrough, was released in April, with Curry playing a role in marketing the Christian-oriented film, which grossed $50 million on a $14 million budget.

Durant has the NBA’s second-biggest annual shoe contract after James’ at an estimated $26 million this season. His total earnings from his playing salary and endorsements is $73 million. Nike sells more KD shoes in China than in North America, according to Durant’s business partner Rich Kleiman.

Like James and Curry, Durant has his own production company, which is co-producing a new basketball-themed drama, Swagger, that is inspired by Durant’s youth basketball experience and will air on the Apple TV+ streaming service.

The NBA’s ten highest-paid players are expected to earn a cumulative $600 million this year, including $250 million from endorsements, appearances, merchandise and media.

A Closer Look At The NBA's Highest-Paid Players
#10: Damian Lillard

Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million supermax extension in July with the Portland Trail Blazers that kicks in for the 2021-2022 season. The final year is worth $54.25 million for the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year and four-time All-Star. Lillard’s Adidas shoe deal is worth roughly $10 million annually.

#9: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The “Greek Freak” is eligible for a five-year, $248 million contract extension next summer with the Milwaukee Bucks. It would be the richest deal in the history of the sport. In June, Nike unveiled the first signature shoe, Zoom Freak 1, for the 2019 NBA MVP.

#8: Chris Paul

Only Curry will earn more on the court this season than Paul, who was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in July. Paul was an early investor and ambassador for Beyond Meat, whose stock price has quadrupled since its initial public offering in May.

#7: Klay Thompson

Thompson’s coach, Steve Kerr, says the sharpshooter is likely to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL during the NBA Finals in June. But he’ll still collect his full $32.7 million salary—almost double last year’s—under the first season of the five-year, $190 million pact he signed in July. Thompson is the basketball face of Chinese shoe brand Anta.

#6: Kyrie Irving

Irving joins his third team in four years this season. His four-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets is worth $136 million and includes an additional $4.3 million in potential incentives. A viral Pepsi ad campaign featuring Irving as the elderly Uncle Drew eventually led to a 2018 feature film; Irving has partial ownership of the character. Irving is another Beyond Meat investor.

#5: James Harden

The 2018 NBA MVP purchased a minority stake in the Houston Dynamo of MLS this summer for $15 million. Harden also holds equity stakes in BodyArmor, Stance socks and Art of Sport. His salary with the Rockets jumps $8 million this season with the start of a contract extension he signed in 2017.

#4: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook’s five-year, $207 million contract is the largest deal in the NBA right now. The eight-time All Star extended his deal with Nike’s Jordan brand in 2017 for another ten years and in 2018 received his first signature shoe, the Why Not Zer0. Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons.

#3: Kevin Durant

Durant is likely to miss the entire season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in June during the NBA Finals. He’ll still pocket his full first-year salary from the Brooklyn Nets under the four-year, $164 million deal he signed in July. He’s invested in more than 30 startups, including Postmates and investing app Acorns.

#2: Stephen Curry

The two-time MVP used some of his hoops money in June to buy a $31 million home in Atherton, California, with his wife, Ayesha. He also made a seven-figure donation this summer to Howard University to help launch a golf program at the school and recently signed an endorsement partnership with Callaway Golf. Curry became the only player to win the NBA MVP unanimously when he won his second of back-to-back awards in 2016.

#1: LeBron James

James signed an endorsement in 2019 with Walmart that is rooted in community work. He worked with the retail giant on its Fight Hunger. Spark Change. initiative, as well as the company’s back-to-school campaign. James is part of an investment group that owns 19 Blaze Pizza franchises across Illinois and Florida.

-Forbes; Kurt Badenhausen

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