Desiree Ellis knows what is to thrive and excel. Just last month, she collected her second successive CAF Women’s Coach of the Year award, having led South Africa to their first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup™.
But Ellis also knows what’s it like to struggle, and to suffer. Though she loved football from an early age, opportunities to play the game with other girls and young women were scarce. When they did arise, her ability – and then short-cropped hair – led to opponents complaining that she must be a boy. Aged 15, and in just her second official game, she was even forced to undress to prove otherwise.
Add in the wider issues faced as a young black woman growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and becomes easier to understand why Ellis was 30 by the time she made her first international appearance.
Yet even playing for her country brought its problems. On her way back from scoring a debut hat-trick, Ellis was delayed when the team minibus broke down. Her employers at the local meat market knew that she was away representing South Africa, but sacked her all the same. “They said I had absconded,” she recalled.
Plenty of others might have wondered whether football was worth all this aggravation. But Ellis’s love for the game, and her fighter’s nature, propelled her to a distinguished playing career and onwards to even greater heights in the dugout.
Now, with her latest trophy glistening on the mantelpiece and memories of that first Women’s World Cup still fresh, Ellis took time to reflect on the changes she’s witnessed and the experiences that have stopped her in her tracks.
FIFA.com: Desiree, you were recently named Africa’s top coach for a second year running. Can you tell us how that felt?
Desiree Ellis: Amazing. Winning it once was fantastic but winning it a second time was even more special, I think. You know it reflects that your team has stayed at a pretty high level, that’s the thing. It’s a team sport, after all, and as staff and players we really do pride ourselves on putting the team first. So I’m proud but, more than that, I’m very grateful. I’m grateful above all to my players because it’s only because of their fantastic efforts that I have been recognised in this way.
Thinking about how tough it was for you coming through, do you ever experience moments like that – picking up trophies, leading your team at a World Cup – and feel like pinching yourself?
Oh yes, definitely. At those moments, you think back to the sacrifices you made and how your life has changed. And this is all a dream come true for me, it really is. The World Cup was the ultimate. Walking out there, looking across and seeing the South African flag, singing the national anthem – it was just incredible. It’s a feeling I can’t even describe.
As a player I dreamed of being involved in these top tournaments and was never fortunate enough to qualify for one. I experienced an Olympics in Rio in 2016, when I was assistant to Vera Pauw. But nothing compares to a World Cup. When we won that semi-final at the AFCON to qualify, the feeling was incredible. There were players crying, hugging, praying, and it was such a big moment for SAFA and our sponsors, who had given us such fantastic preparation. Everyone was so happy.
But the best moment was when we came back to South Africa and saw the crowd that was waiting to congratulate and celebrate with us. That’s when I really got a lump in my throat because I realised fully the magnitude of what we had achieved. I still remember there was a girl in the crowd that day saying, ‘I want to be there in 2023’. I think it got a few girls dreaming like that.
How do you reflect on the World Cup in sporting terms? Were you disappointed not to pick up at least a point?
I had no complaints because the players left everything out on the field and, as a coach, that’s all you can ask. I think we showed at times – in the first half against Spain, for example – what we can do. But we need to become more consistent. It was our first World Cup though, and I’m sure the players will be much stronger for the experience, and better prepared for 2023 – if we can get there.
In the wake of the World Cup, South Africa launched a national women’s league. How important was that?
It’s not where we want to be but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The level has been high so far, better than expected, and more and more national team players playing in the league, which can only help us going forward. We have to get the best playing against the best every week. But what I know for sure is that the talent is there. At the National Sasol play-offs we had very young players, between 14 and 16, facing more experienced players, and the talent on show was unbelievable. It really convinces me that future is very bright for South African women’s football.
Amid so many positives, your failure to qualify for the Olympics was a big setback – and a big shock.
It was very unexpected. If reaching the World Cup was the big highlight of last year, that – losing to Botswana and missing the Olympics – was definitely the low point. We missed so many chances over both legs to finish the tie off and the result was penalties, when it’s always a lottery. It was a really dark day for South African women’s football because we know how important the Olympics was to continuing the progress we’ve made. I only hope that the pain of the experience drives the players on to achieve more special moments.
Do you feel added pressure to ‘fly the flag’ and help open the doors for more women – and black women – to get some of the top coaching jobs in Africa and beyond?
The great thing is that a lot of African countries are now putting their faith in women’s coaches, and that’s really positive for the continent. I’m proud, too. that South Africa is leading in that respect – it was a bold decision for [SAFA president] Dr [Danny] Jordaan to appoint female coaches to all of the women’s national teams. I should say, in fact, that Simphiwe Dludlu was the first former player to lead a South Africa team to a World Cup (the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup) – we just had to take on the baton! Really, you only need to look at the World Cup, where the finalists both had female coaches, to see that women are in these positions on merit. There is pressure in trying to help open doors, but I try not to think about it too much. Coaching a national team is pressure enough!
When you see South African players moving abroad, playing full-time, picking up commercial endorsements, it must make you reflect on the progress from your own playing days?
It does, and it’s fantastic. Each generation tries to make things better for the next, and there’s no doubt things have changed so much for the better. But we don’t want to rest on that because there is still so much room for improvement. We’re impatient, and we want the game to grow as quickly as possible. Africa in particular needs to do more if we want to keep pace with the other continents. But when I think back to my playing days, the progress really is amazing. My big hope is that it’s just the start.