Desiree Ellis: How a trailblazing coach lifted S African football

Once sacked from her day job after playing for South Africa, she’s now leading Banyana Banyana at the Women’s World Cup.

Ellis's side won the 2022 Women's Africa Cup of Nations [File: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Nearly 30 years after she played in South Africa’s first-ever women’s international football match, Desiree Ellis coached her nation to their first title when they beat hosts Morocco in the final of the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in front of 50,000-plus fans.

It ended decades of heartbreak, as South Africa had lost in four finals: 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2018.

“It was about those that have come before, you know, that had this dream of winning the [WAFCON], that had this dream of qualifying for the World Cup,” the 60-year-old told Al Jazeera, speaking from Cape Town.

“And I think through that, everybody’s dreams have been realised. And I think it almost brought peace to those that have come before.”

Ellis defied apartheid-era laws and overcame economic hardship on her way to an illustrious playing career and becoming one of the most successful coaches in South African football. She not only became the first woman of colour to take charge of Banyana Banyana, as the national team are called, but also the first former national team player to take the role.

As well as coaching her side to AFCON glory, she also led them to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 2019.

The trailblazing coach now has her sights on another milestone at the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand: setting South Africa on the way to joining the elite of women’s football by getting out of the group stage for the first time.

“That will be huge because you never know what can happen after that,” Ellis said.

‘Quite an incredible player’

Raised in Salt River, a suburb of Cape Town, Ellis was obsessed with football as a kid and would repeatedly get in trouble in primary school for jumping the school fence to play with the boys. A short midfielder who also played on the wing, even at a young age Ellis was special.

Fran Hilton-Smith, a pioneer of women’s football and later Ellis’s coach at the national team, first came across Ellis when she was just 15 and one of the first people of colour to play in women’s tournaments.

“She was already incredibly talented, fast and skilful,” Hilton-Smith told Al Jazeera.

Ellis continued to break down barriers, playing regularly with and against women of different ethnic backgrounds, which was illegal during apartheid.

“From the late eighties, we also had black women’s teams coming to play in the league [that was previously whites only] because the police were not really worried about the women playing together. It wasn’t such a big issue as the men,” recalled Hilton-Smith.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, leading to the eventual end of Apartheid rule and the readmission of South Africa to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and FIFA.

In 1993, the newly-formed South African women’s national team played a friendly against Swaziland, known now as Eswatini. Among those making their debut for Banyana Banyana was vice-captain Ellis, then 30, who made the more than 15-hour bus ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg to play in the match.

Ellis scored a hat trick in a 14-0 thrashing of South Africa’s smaller neighbours.

“We were all just happy to play. You know, you have the dream of playing for the national team and then finally it’s happening and I’m 30 years old!” Ellis said.

Despite her age, Ellis went on to enjoy nearly a decade as a Banyana Banyana player, spending eight years as captain. During that time she reached two WAFCON finals, losing out to Nigeria on both occasions.

And with the tournament doubling as a qualifier for the single spot allocated to African teams at the Women’s World Cup, South Africa fell agonisingly short of qualifying.

Ellis also sacrificed much for her love of football and the chance to represent her country, including her employment.

On the journey home from that first-ever match for the national team, the bus that Ellis was on broke down on its return to Cape Town and she was delayed. Her boss at a meat market in Cape Town was not impressed and laid her off.

“They said that I absconded,” she recalled. “One of our administrators actually came to see them but they were not interested. And so I was out of work for three years.”

Over the next couple decades, Ellis would work various odd jobs to keep her going first as an amateur player and then as she made steps into coaching. Among those jobs were door-to-door sales, working in a bakery, photo editing and even transcribing fan letters for the South African football publication KickOff.

Ellis would end her playing career at the age of 40 with three SAFA Women’s interprovincial titles at the club level and amass 32 caps with Banyana Banyana, scoring six goals.

When she retired from playing, Ellis made the step into coaching – taking charge of her former club team Spurs Ladies for a number of years while acquiring her coaching badges. But her big break would come when she was appointed the national team’s assistant coach to Vera Pauw in 2014.

When Pauw’s stint ended in disappointment in 2016, Ellis was appointed interim head coach.

Not only was Ellis the first woman of colour to take charge of Banyana Banyana, but also the first former Banyana player to take the role.

“She was quite an incredible player. And I think maybe that also goes into what she does now as a coach,” South African journalist Busisiwe Mokwena told Al Jazeera. “Players are able to believe in her more because she is not just a coach, she’s a coach who’s done it. She’s a coach that has been in the system for so many years.”

‘What we’ve done is amazing’

Under Ellis’s leadership the team plays a brand of possession football that Ellis herself would have loved to have been a part of as a player, currently based around midfielders Linda Motlhalo and captain Refiloe Jane.

In 2018, Ellis’s side overcame one of South Africa’s biggest barriers by beating Nigeria in the group stage of the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations. At this point, the Super Falcons had won 10 of 12 WAFCONs and beaten South Africa nine times in their previous 10 meetings at the tournament.

Ellis would experience heartbreak later in the tournament, losing to Nigeria in the final on penalties, but the days of Banyana Banyana being seen as second-class to the Super Falcons were over.

Just as importantly, the run to the final meant South Africa qualified for their first-ever Women’s World Cup in 2019 as Africa now had three slots at the tournament.

Banyana Banyana’s first World Cup experience ended in disappointment, with three losses in the group stage, but the experience was transformative.

Not only did it lead to the emergence of new stars like Thembi Kgatlana, who was top scorer at the 2018 WAFCON and followed it up by scoring against Spain at the World Cup, but it also led to the South Africa Football Association (SAFA) launching the country’s first women’s national league in 2019.

While the league is not yet fully professional, it is considered one of the best in Africa. Mamelodi Sundowns won the inaugural CAF Women’s Champions League in 2021 and lost in the final in 2022 to Moroccan club ASFAR Rabat.

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Ellis’s team returned to continental competition last year as genuine competitors to Nigeria’s WAFCON crown and they delivered. Banyana Banyana repeated their 2018 feat by beating the Super Falcons in the first game of the tournament, then went on to win 2-1 in the final in front of a raucous, partisan Moroccan crowd.

Ellis has racked up other awards over the last few years. She has now been voted the CAF coach of the year for the previous three years. Earlier this year she was given the Order of Ikhamanga – awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism or sport – by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In Salt River now, there is a mural of Ellis in her playing days for Banyana Banyana – a testament to her legacy.

But for Ellis, all these accomplishments and awards mean nothing if she fails in Australia and New Zealand and fails to get out of a tough group featuring Sweden, Italy and Argentina. Preparations were affected by players boycotting the send-off match over a pay and conditions dispute.

Success at the World Cup could also boost South Africa’s credentials as an elite women’s football nation and its bid to host the next edition of the tournament in 2027. Ellis hopes that the growing success of the women’s game can also help it turn fully professional.

“We are competing against teams that are fully professional, and it shows,” Ellis said. “What we have done so far is amazing. Imagine if we had a fully-fledged professional league!”

Source: Al Jazeera