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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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Staying Flexible: With The Postponement Of The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, This Gymnast’s Goal Hasn’t Changed

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The 19-year-old South African gymnast was all set for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July, for which she had qualified. With the event’s postponement, her goal hasn’t changed, she says, only the timeline has. 

At just 19 years old, Caitlin Rooskrantz is South Africa’s gold medal-winning international gymnast.

From Florida, a small suburb in Roodepoort in Johannesburg, and currently in lockdown in the country, if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn’t happened, Rooskrantz would have now been intensely training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July, for which she had qualified.

 “I qualified for the 2020 Games being the first woman in South Africa’s gymnastics history to have achieved an outright qualification at the world championships,” she told an audience of female powerhouses at the 2020 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban on March 6.

Even as a child, when she first took to gymnastics, she had been set on making it to the Olympics one day.   

The news of the Games’ postponement has been quite upsetting, but says Rooskrantz: “It is in the best interest of all the athletes because our health comes first, always!” Her favorite quote, in particular, comforts her at this time: “The goal hasn’t changed, just the timeline has, keep going!”

Her training has continued through the lockdown and it has kept her afternoons busy.

“We have set programs to keep up our strength, fitness and flexibility. To try and keep up my mental game, I watch videos daily of any past successful competitions. I analyse my training videos and try to mentally put myself in the video,” she says.

2019 had been “a spectacular year” for her.

“I managed to pass matric well with two distinctions and university entrance while training for my childhood dream. Not only did I bag South Africa’s first-ever gold medal on uneven bars on an international stage, but at just 18 years old, I made history,” she said at the summit, to an applauding audience. 

In an interview with FORBES AFRICA, Rooskrantz reflects on the days when it all started, as a young child, when she was a bundle of energy and her parents knew early on that they had to redirect that energy to sport.

A teenager now, but if Rooskrantz has already seen much success, she has also experienced tragedy and hardship.

When she was just eight, her father, from whom she inherited her deep love for sport, passed away. He took his own life.

She had been training at a gymnastics center a few kilometers from home, but that had to stop because of the tragedy and transportation issues. But her former trainer took it upon herself to regularly drive her there.

“Everything started escalating and things took a turn. I dropped all my school sports because I didn’t have any time for them; I had to pick one, especially with the high demand of gym,” she says.

Rooskrantz was placed on a high-performance program and soon started traveling; training more than four hours a day six days a week at the age of 11. This was the intermediate level of her tumbling (a gymnastic feat including the execution of acrobatic feats) profession and the best was yet to come.

Her first overseas trip was to Australia for a training camp in 2012. A few months later, Rooskrantz competed in Serbia for her first international competition. It might have not been the best competition for her, but it was great exposure.

In 2014, South Africa hosted the African gymnastics championships with Rooskrantz the youngest member of the junior team.

“I did well, I don’t remember falling and I made it to the bar finals and that was the time I started to realize my potential on the asymmetric bar. I left that with a big boost to my confidence.” 

The young student was progressing quickly, reaching new heights.

On her last year as a junior in the 2016 Junior Commonwealth Games in Namibia, she made three apparatus finals; asymmetric bar, vault and the balancing beam.

An injury kept her away from the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018, when she went in for surgery and was off the apparatus for months.

“I was in bed after my operation but back at gym a week after, still on crutches, working on my upper body. In a sport like gymnastics, when you are that injured, it is critical to do something because you lose strength, flexibility and fitness. I was also working on my mental state,” she says of those hard days. Her coach told her the surgery was either going to make or break her career. She was determined to return stronger. She did, and how.

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All Home And No Play: Not Since World War II Has The Global Sports Industry Faced Such A Crippling Crisis

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Not since World War II has the global sports industry faced such a crippling crisis, which is likely to cost billions of dollars in lost revenue and could yet see the permanent extinction of some teams and competitions.

The coronavirus pandemic that has spread across the world has the potential to change the face of sports forever, and Africa will not be spared, with one administrator suggesting the outbreak could set their game back 20 years.

The severity of the impact will be determined by how long it takes for society to live alongside the pandemic, but even if that were to happen in June, there has already been significant damage done.

Confederation of African Football (CAF) President Ahmad Ahmad has tried to provide a positive outlook, but knows the complexity of the situation on the continent is dire.

None of the 54 domestic leagues in Africa was still running in May, as Burundi was the last to close up shop the month before, but just when cross-border competitions such as the lucrative CAF Champions League, and qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup, can resume, is anybody’s guess given travel restrictions are likely to be in place for some time, and vary from country to country.

“CAF is already focused on the conditions for relaunching our competitions and our events,” Ahmad said in comments supplied to FORBES AFRICA.

“Never has a crisis of such great magnitude crossed the world, never has world sport decreed so many postponements of its programs and never has such a tsunami struck the most basic sporting practice.

“We are now condemned to rebuild the basics, or at least to reinforce them, to energize them so that at the time of recovery, we will be the best structured and best disposed to conquer or re-conquer, the dry territories of sport and football.

It is Ahmad’s way of saying that any thought of returning to pre-coronavirus levels of engagement and sponsorship are fanciful in the short-term, or perhaps even medium-term.

His suggestion of having to “rebuild the basics” is a key admission and will be the same for many sports that face a sponsorship vacuum from some of the world’s leading brands.

When airlines, major sponsors of African sport, have been laying off staff and cut their schedules to next to nothing, can they justify pumping millions of dollars into sport?

The same for car manufactures, loss-making banks and oil companies hit by the drop in the price of crude.

The health conditions to allow play for many sports in Africa may return this year, but the question is whether there will be the financial support vital to being able to play the game.

Selwyn Nathan, commissioner of South Africa’s Sunshine Tour and a leading expert on global golf, suggests the pandemic may return the sport to the year 2000 in terms of financial capabilities.

“It could be like starting a business all over again, you can’t have an attitude that people [sponsors] will just come back,” Nathan says.

“It’s not something unique to Africa, or sport anywhere in the world, but we are going to have to change the way we do things.

“Players will have to accept that they are not going to be playing for the same money, and organizers must accept they will have to ask for less [money] and possibly do more just to retain sponsors.

“It is going to fundamentally change the way we operate and we have to adapt to that.”

Winners in some co-sanctioned Sunshine Tour and European Tour golf events can earn upwards of $1.5-million per tournament, but Nathan believes those numbers will be fanciful for the foreseeable future and it is likely to be a fraction of that.

The pandemic could be the death knell for ailing Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere club championship that has been hanging on for dear life, as it was, due to dwindling interest and its format that sees players criss-cross the globe between Argentina, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Japan.

In the case of world champion Springboks, that could actually work in their favor and see them looking north to Europe for club and country competitions, where the TV revenues are greater and load on players less, according to respected Stormers coach John Dobson.

“I believe there will be a restructuring of the game and that could be at Super Rugby’s expense,” Dobson says. “There could be stronger focus on domestic competitions with less travel and more tailored for television, because ultimately, that is where you get the revenue to run the game.

“It’s critical you have a product that is appealing to rugby fans, and after this period, maybe that will rather involve South African teams playing in the [European] Heineken Cup. I don’t know, but something has to change.”

Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, who is chairman of the APO Group, a communication and business consultancy in Africa, says he has seen first-hand the toll the virus has taken on sports federations almost across the board.

“I think, unfortunately, it will have a devastating effect for many. First of all, athletes cannot train properly and when you are at the level of international competition, just a few percentage points off can compromise your body,” he says.

“Added to that, there is no competition and the longer this goes on, the longer it will take for athletes to return to peak performances, so in the near term, you will have a poorer product for television and sponsors.”

Pompigne-Mognard says cross-border competitions are vital in Africa and it is in these multi-national tournaments where many federations across different sports make most of their revenue.

“Each African nation is unlikely to return to full health at the same time, so, for example, the Basketball Africa League, which involves 12 teams from across the continent has to be put on hold until travel is possible.

“It will go ahead, but the question is when and what are the financial consequences of this? It is something that we cannot quantify now, so we live in this state of uncertainty and that is not good for anybody, sport or business.”

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games to 2021 has brought much relief for many athletes, who had seen their training regimes brought to a halt, or at best conducted in the confines of their own home.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Chad le Clos had had to make do with what he has at home while in lockdown in South Africa, one of thousands of elite athletes from across Africa in similar situations.

“It is what it is and I am happy with the decision (to move the Olympics) that has been made,” Le Clos says. “I have a small pool at home, so I attach a cord that allows me to stay stationary as I swim.”

 “We cannot afford to take a break, even in lockdown. You cannot let yourself lose the months and months of work that you have put into your body.

“I don’t know where or when I will compete again, but you have to stay positive. You have to hope for the best, that is all we can do.”

-Nick Said

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Ronaldo’s $105 Million Year Tops Messi And Crowns Him Soccer’s First Billion-Dollar Man

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Add another zero to soccer’s most expensive rivalry.

Cristiano Ronaldo earned $105 million before taxes and fees in the past year, landing him at No. 4 on the 2020 Forbes Celebrity 100, one spot above his top rival in the sport, Lionel Messi, and making him the first soccer player in history to earn $1 billion.  

The 35-year-old striker is only the third athlete to hit mark while still playing following Tiger Woods, who did it in 2009 on the back of his long term endorsement deal with Nike NKE, and Floyd Mayweather in 2017, who’s made most of his income from a cut of pay-per-view sales for his boxing matches. 

Ronaldo, the first to do it in a team sport, has made $650 million during his 17 years on the pitch, and is expected to reach $765 million in career salary after his current contract ends in June 2022. Messi, who began playing at the senior level three years after Ronaldo, has earned a total of $605 million in salary since 2005. The only team athlete to even come within striking distance of those figures was former New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, who retired in 2016 after 22 years in MLB having earned $450 million in salary. Not even soccer legend David Beckham came close, ending his career with total earnings of $500 million, half of which came from off-pitch endorsements. 

“Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players of all time, in the world’s most popular sport, in an era when football has never been so rich,” said Sporting Intelligence’s Nick Harris, whose Global Sports Salaries Survey ranks teams worldwide based on total salary expense. “He’s box office.”

Ronaldo and Messi’s head-to-heads heated up in Spain’s La Liga in 2009, where Ronaldo played for Real Madrid and Messi for Barcelona. Their faceoffs on the pitch ignited a nine-year battle for bragging rights as the best — and top-paid — in the sport, a highly personal tit-for-tat that had them re-negotiating contracts in lockstep and monopolizing the game’s highlight reel. 

The rivalry was as entertaining as it was profitable, coming just as clubs around the world were seeing soaring attendance and an influx of television money. The two were perfectly matched for battle, on and off the pitch: Ronaldo perfected a shirtless, stylized showmanship while Messi played the quiet game, always a tad unkempt and as prolific a scorer as he was a wingman. Ronaldo strutted after every goal. Messi was a master at thanking his teammates. 

Both backed it up. Barcelona won the La Liga title six times and two Champions Leagues trophies with Messi on the squad. Real Madrid won the Spanish title twice and the Champions League four times with Ronaldo. During their years in the league, each player nabbed four Ballon d’Ors (soccer’s MVP) and their El Classicos, the nickname for their clubs fierce clashes, were record-setting television events worldwide. 

But when it came to leveraging celebrity, it has been no contest. Guided by Jorge Mendes of Gestifute, one of the world’s most powerful agents, Ronaldo has amassed an ever-growing following of fans and consumers drawn to his poster-boy good looks, trend-setting hair styles, impeccable fashion sense and, lately, his softer side as a family man whose toddlers pop up on his social media posts. In January he became the first person with 200 million followers on Instagram, part of a social media army of 427 million across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that makes him the most popular athlete on the planet. 

Nike pays him upwards of $20 million annually and signed him to a lifetime deal in 2016, making him just the third athlete after Michael Jordan and LeBron James hitched to the Swoosh for eternity. In May, the footwear maker announced the release of a 10-year anniversary edition of his first signature Mercurial Superfly and a child’s version to celebrate his son’s 10th birthday, complete with his famous celebration stance, signature and logo. Pitches for Clear shampoo, Herbalife HLF, and pharmaceutical maker Abbott help raise his endorsement tally to $45 million.

Ronaldo, Inc. even has a trademark — CR7, a mix of his initials and jersey number — part of a lifestyle brand that Forbes estimates accounts for a quarter of his annual endorsement income, including branded underwear that debuted in 2013 that was followed by a line of shoes, fragrances and denim wear. He partnered with Pestana Hotel Group in 2015 to open his first property a year later in his hometown of Funchal, Madeira, right above Museu CR7, a shrine for his trophies and a retail outlet for his merchandise. He’s since added CR7 clubs with Crunch Fitness, posts workout routines on YouTube and has attached his name to a social media influencing degree offered by Italian online university eCampus.

And the rivalry is far from done.

Ronaldo’s 2020 earnings include a salary of $60 million, slightly less than last year due to a 30% pay cut he agreed to take this April as a result of the pandemic. Messi, who earned $104 million in the past year after taking a 70% pay cut while coronavirus sidelined play, is poised to surpass $1 billion in all-time earnings as soon as next year, before his current Barca contract ends.

Christina Settimi, Forbes Staff, SportsMoney

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