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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.