As a youngster, it would have been unthinkable for Desiree Ellis to make a living playing football and, for much of her playing days, she had no choice but to juggle odd jobs to get by. She was famously fired from a butchery after her club’s transport broke down and caused her to miss a shift.
Until 1993, there was no Banyana Banyana to play for either. A 30-year-old Ellis made her debut in the national team’s very first international match: a 14-0 drubbing of Swaziland in which she grabbed a hat-trick.
From her view in the dugout 27 years later, Ellis says that the landscape of women’s football is unrecognisable, and changing faster than it ever has. Thanks largely to Banyana’s maiden World Cup appearance and other recent achievements — over which Ellis has presided — the country’s players have courted interest from clubs from all corners of the globe. This year alone, despite a sport-ravaging pandemic, we’ve had several high-profile moves abroad to cheer. With every new professional contract comes the unshakable, giddy sense that we’re witnessing a special point in our history.
Do you think the number of moves we’ve seen represents a watershed moment in the history of women’s football in South Africa?
You know, we always knew that there’s talent in this country. It was just surprising that [after] going to an Olympics and doing well at Afcon [Africa Cup of Nations] not many players were signed. But I think it needs a major tournament like the World Cup for people to almost confirm what we’ve been saying all these years — that we have talent in this country. I think it’s just gone crazy in these past months: in 10 days we had all these players signing.
It’s also the hard work put in by the players, though. We always say that if you put in the work the rewards will come. That is from their effort.
I’m almost afraid [that] when I wake up tomorrow morning and switch on my phone another one is going. It’s just amazing what has happened so suddenly a year after the World Cup.
Many of us would like to claim these signings as a win for the local football scene, too. How do you see the success of these international moves translating into the growth of our burgeoning competitions?
We always say that players must play at a high level and must train at a high level. I go back to 2016: we played Nigeria and Cameroon and their teams constituted 80% players who played abroad. People were always saying that they don’t come together as often as we do, but they are playing at a high level and are training at a high level, whereas we need to get our players to that certain level. And you could see that experience rubbing off.
As great as these moves are, are there any niggling causes for concern?
Moving to a new country and culture is never easy, and a negative experience can often curtail a player’s development. Support structures can also be less than adequate, particularly at clubs that rank women’s football lower on the priority list.
Yes, for many players going abroad is a challenge. But how are we going to get better if you are not challenged? A lot of players dream about playing abroad and playing professionally, and when the opportunity comes … yes, we want our players to go to bigger and better countries and the bigger and better clubs, but you have to start somewhere as well.
I remember Leandra [Smeda] going to Gintra [in Lithuania] and then signing a contract in Sweden, which is one of the better countries in the world. It’s an opportunity to showcase their talents and hopefully get better and bigger contracts.
I remember Thembi [Kgatlana] and Linda [Motlhalo] going to the US and Janine [van Wyk] was there. Then Thembi and Linda went to China, and now Thembi is in Spain [and] Linda is in Portugal. You just look at Linda — how much she’s grown. It was always going to be a challenge being on her own because she’s always been with another teammate and it just shows how she’s grown. Having to come out of her comfort zone can only make her a better player and also a better person.
Do you ever find yourself daydreaming about what could have been if you had a similar opportunity to challenge yourself and play as a full-time professional early in your career?
I think every generation has different challenges. Maybe my life would not have turned out the way it did, but we’re always saying that one generation opens doors for the next generation. This generation, in which a lot of players have now gone abroad, will hopefully open even more doors.
I’m just excited that players are leaving and there are more and more opportunities opening up every day. I remember, when we went to the World Cup, we were sort of recognising everyone that had come before. I had also dreamed of going to the World Cup as a player … When we qualified for the World Cup, it was as though the players that had come before also had their dreams realised.
Of course, those experiences also helped prepare you to one day take on the Banyana job …
It was difficult in the beginning because you think you’re going to play forever, but that’s not possible. You don’t realise that when you’re on the field you’re already a coach.
While I was playing I was also involved in coaching. I was a coach for the Western Province Nike Premier Cup team; I was with the Western Cape team for the SA games; I was an U19 coach; I was a junior convenor — all while I was actively playing. Eventually, I branched out into coaching. It takes a lot of hard work: it’s not just about blowing the whistle. You have to have a passion for it.
When I was an ambassador for the World Cup in 2010 and it ended, with me being involved in so many projects, I had to make a decision: Do I go back to corporate or do I continue what I’m doing? That period after the World Cup was a very tough one. I didn’t have a job; I sometimes worked for the SABC — you know, I had to make ends meet. But when I look at all those sacrifices I made, the end product is worthwhile.
You’ve always struck me as a coach who prefers to have a long-term vision driving your strategies. Has the cancellation of this year’s Africa Women’s Cup of Nations meant you have had to make any adjustments?
With it postponed until 2022, it’s far away for me, but it is what it is. Planning has to go that way now: it becomes a very important tournament because it doubles up as a World Cup qualifier. For the first time, 12 countries are going to participate, which I think makes it much more difficult.
The national team has never won it, although we came very close in 2018, so it would be nice if we could put the cherry on the cake to win it.