By Andile Dladla and Mandla Dladla
Desiree Ellis was unrecognizable under her facemask, sitting on the bench and barking instructions to a new-look Banyana Banyana that went on to defeat Angola 2-0 in their opening group match of the 2020 COSAFA senior women Championship in Port Elizabeth.
Now coach of Banyana, Ellis comes a long way to occupy the hottest seat in women football in South Africa. In fact, one is correct to say she is among pioneers of women football in the country and has not only paid her dues, but has sacrificed a lot for the development of the women game.
She had to fight chauvinism during the embryonic stages of women football from people that looked askance at females playing the game and had to resign her job at a butchery in Cape Town where she was producing and packing French polonies.
“My cousins were all boys and we played football together while growing up at my grandmother’s house,” recalls Ellis. “Granma was our guardian during the day due to the fact that my mom and dad had to work and only came home late at night.
“I think I actually started at around the age of six. I fell in love with football at a very young age even though there was an opportunity to play basketball or netball, for me I enjoyed football the most.”
But strong winds of change were blowing in South Africa. Former political prisoners were released from incarceration, among them Nelson Mandela. It meant the FIFA doors that had been close for South Africa since 1964 were opened and the country was re-admitted back into the international family of football playing nations.
Football, which in a bizarre kind of way in South Africa was played along racial lines, with Whites, Blacks, Indians and Coloureds playing among themselves, was unified and a single, non-racial South African Football Association (SAFA) was established out of the fragmented formations.
Trials were held for the SA national women team that would represent the country in tournaments like the Africa Cup of Nations for Women and the FIFA World Cup for women.
Ellis recalls boarding a taxi to a central venue for players from the Western Cape. And as fate would have it, she made the cut and was selected for the national team and to crown it all, was appointed vice-captain of the team.
Embarking on a journey of self-discovery in football, she made her debut in international football at the ripe age of 30 in a friendly game against eSwatini and scored a hat-trick in a 14-0 after scoring 51 goals in 126 appearances for Athlone Celtic.
But as the reputation grew and her name was emblazoned across the South African mainstream media, she faced a difference challenge. Her employers gave her an ultimatum to drop football or be fired. She quit the job and despite the fact that there was no remuneration in football, she concentrated on the game full-time.
“I scored my first ever hat-trick while on international duty against eSwatini and lost my job on the same day,” she recalls ruefully. “I won’t say I didn’t care. I was living my dream. I had fulfilled my ambition of representing my country and nothing else mattered.
“I remember playing in the World Cup qualifiers during 1994 on a nightmare trip to Nigeria. We got the shock of our lives when we had to play on a bumpy, gravel pitch that had no grass. The heat was unbearable and we lost the game 4-1.
“But we were not discouraged or disillusioned. Somehow we felt that we would extract revenge in South Africa for the second leg and would show the Nigerians who we were. They handed us a 7-1 thrashing at home and we lost 11-2 on aggregate.”
Those were the early stages of Banyana Banyana. They learned the hard way that football was quite different and in actual fact, much tougher and harder across the continent than they imagined.
“I thought of quitting after that 11-2 thrashing. But I continued and representing South Africa at the 1998 AFCON in Nigeria, we lost to Ghana and Cameroon but we were getting to grips about the requirements of international football.”
Two years later at Vosloorus, Banyana Banyana reached the final where they faced old nemesis Nigeria. But after conceding two goals there was a crowd disturbance and the game was abandoned.
“Although we lost in the final that was abandoned, the tournament had offered us a platform to market ourselves and we became household names.”
On retirement, Ellis coached the Spurs Ladies for a decade. She was then recruited to assist then Banyana coach Vera Paauw. But when the Dutch resigned during 2016 following the Olympic Games, Ellis was appointed head coach.
She has taken to the job like a duck to water, leading Banyana to a hat-trick of COSAFA titles, qualification to the FIFA World Cup and the cherry on top was when she was voted CAF Coach of the Year in Cairo during 2019, a recognition of her work ethic and dedication to her job.
There has been a steady increase of Banyana players securing contracts in Europe which augurs well for the game in South Africa following the establishment of the Sasol National league in South Africa.
Refiloe Jane (Italy); Linda Mothlalo (Sweden); Jermaine Seoposenwe (Portugal); Thembi Kgatlana (Spain); Janine Van Wyk (Scotland); Bambanani Mbane (Belarus); Nothando Vilakazi (Spain); Amanda Mthandi (Spain); Noko Matlou (Spain); Lebo Ramalepe (Belarus); Rhoda Mulaudzi (Belarus); Ode Fulutudilu (Finland); Andisiwe Mgcoyi and Zanele Nhlapo (Kosovo); Kelso Peskin (France);
“A lot can still be done to develop the game,” says Ellis. “We have a high performance centre at Tuks in Pretoria. And a lot of the players that are currently in the national team have come from that program and some have been scouted at their youth teams.
“There is a process of re-introducing school football and we have varsity football that is sort of the gap between the club and national team. But I feel as coaches there is a lot more that we can do to help develop young girls into playing the game.”
Banyana Banyana are currently in Port Elizabeth for the 2020 COSAFA Women’s Championship.