FROM A BUTCHERY WORKER TO World Cup coach
Desiree Ellis has won many admirers in the past few days after guiding Banyana Banyana to their maiden Women’s World Cup. Daniel Mothowagae traces the making of the country’s newest hero
Life was so tough for Desiree Ellis that, at some point, she had to chase her football dream in battered soccer boots.
But it became even tougher in 1993, when she lost her job at a local butchery where she was employed as a spice mixer.
Her firing came after she answered a call to try out at Banyana Banyana’s first camp during the team’s formative years.
Ellis had stocked up enough spices to last for the days she was away, but she and her mates had a tyre puncture on their way back.
As fate would have it, her bosses accused her of absconding and fired her.
“I was out of work for three years,” said Ellis, who comes from Salt River in Cape Town.
But this did not stop the pint-sized player from following her passion for the beautiful game when her dream of becoming a lawyer fizzled out.
The 55-year-old looked a bit drained during her oneon-one interview with City Press this week.
But this was not surprising. She has had to deal with huge media attention since she guided Banyana to a runners-up spot at the recent Africa Women Cup of Nations – and a subsequent qualification for the South African women’s debut at the World Cup.
It is fitting that, after many years of trying to reach the global showpiece, Ellis spearheaded this feat even though she paid a heavy price on her way up the Banyana ranks.
Ellis, one of three children in her family, is still grateful to her parents for their support in a sport that some deemed not tailored for girls.
“I just had this football bug in my system and, back in the day, other parents could have easily said: ‘You’re a girl and you shouldn’t be playing football,’” said Ellis, who is not married and has no kids.
“My life would have turned out differently. My sister got a bursary to study at university, but I didn’t get the opportunity. I wanted to be a lawyer, but I don’t know what happened along the way.”
Ellis was identified at Banyana as a leader from the onset.
Terry Paine, who was the Banyana coach at the time, made Ellis the squad’s vice-captain.
She scored a hat-trick on debut when South Africa beat Swaziland 14-0 in their first international game.
She went on to accumulate 32 caps in a career with Banyana spanning nine years – from 1993 to 2002.
“Both my parents worked, but I couldn’t even afford boots. I remember the pair I had got a hole and I had to tape them. Everybody said: ‘But you’re the captain.’ But I told them I didn’t have money to buy boots.”
Ellis recalled how the family had to move from Salt River to Hanover Park because “the family house was too small”.
“We were five. My mother would pack food to take with us after school to go to my granny in the afternoon,” she said.
Ellis got odd jobs and found herself working in the picture library at Kick Off magazine while playing for the Cape Town Spurs Ladies’ team.
“Prior to that, Mark Gleeson [the founding editor of Kick Off] approached me and asked if I could help with answering the fan mail, and I got R5 a letter doing that. I also helped with magazine subscriptions, which meant I always took the last taxi home.
“These are the stories people don’t know – they see you on television and don’t know the hardships you go through.”
Further opportunities came her way, including being appointed as an ambassador for the 2010 World Cup alongside other South African football legends, including Doctor Khumalo and Phil “Chippa” Masinga.
The World Cup gig was over the minute the final whistle blew at FNB Stadium in July 2010.
“I had to make decisions on what to do next. I was unemployed for a few months,” said Ellis.
She later ran coaching clinics for restaurant franchise Spur at its grassroots project, Masidlale.
“The opportunity to do a Uefa B licence came, but, because I didn’t have a full-time job, I turned down the chance,” said Ellis, who hid her struggles from her mum, including when she almost lost her car and house.
“My mother knew none of these things because she would have gone mad,” Ellis said.
“Sometimes I say the sacrifice of today is the success of tomorrow. Whatever happens, there is always a reason. I just let it go and I loved what I was doing. I was involved in football and that’s something I really love with all my heart.”
Ellis – who was given the Banyana job after serving on an interim basis for 18 months – refuses to take sole credit for Banyana’s success.
The CAF A licence holder has already ticked off two of her tasks in her tough mandate – Ellis, who has been nominated to receive the CAF coach of the year award, has qualified Banyana for Afcon in Ghana and for the World Cup in France.
She is still left with the task of taking South Africa to the 2020 Olympic Games.
THEN A youthful Desiree Ellis in Banyana’s first international matchNOW Coach Desiree Ellis has guided Banyana to their maiden World Cup