ILLUSTRATION: Carlos Amato
The story of Desiree Ellis is one of persistence and an incredible work ethic in a thankless job, and she’s mindful of that. When she finally lifted the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations trophy as Banyana Banyana coach last weekend in Rabat, Morocco she’d come full circle and told colleague Lorenz Kohler that this was the reward for the years of sacrifice.
“You know, when I played for the national team (Ellis donned the Banyana colours from 1993-2002), I lost my job along the way,” she said. “I think it was just after 2010 I could have gone to the Netherlands for a UEFA B License. I wasn’t employed at the time, and I had four months left on my car, and I had a bond to pay. If I had gone, I would have lost my car, most probably would have lost my house, because I wouldn’t have been able to pay it.”
Unthinkable decision to make at the time, but…
“So I sacrificed, and here I’m a champion today. You know the sacrifices that you put in that no one sees, the hard work that you put in that no one sees, this is the reward,” Ellis added in her reaction to clinching the trophy following South Africa’s 2-1 victory over hosts Morocco at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.
That is the Banyana coach in a nutshell and, of course, she deserves her flowers now that she has achieved what has in the past eluded her predecessors and proved a near impossible dream for her too in the time she has been in the national team dugout.
But Ellis is a fitting winner because she knows first-hand the plight of the women’s game in the country – for Safa to eventually give her the job in 2016 following her apprenticeship under Vera Pauw was one of the true signs of appreciation.
Much of her influence and growth can be attributed to Pauw, the former Dutch defender now in charge of the Republic of Ireland on the back of stints with Banyana, Scotland, her native country and Russia.
When the federation put out feelers for someone to replace Pauw, the perfect candidate was right under their noses and was eventually given the job, albeit in the interim for 18 months to sort of prove herself.
A smack in the face… but anyway, given that her character is one of letting her work do the talking, Ellis was finally appointed permanently and hasn’t looked back since. The height of her success to date is evidently the three successive CAF Coach of the Year accolades, one of them won on the eve of her watershed moment… the Wafcon title.
Ellis has paid her school fees, from being one of the founding members of Banyana in 1993, captaining the side and being part of the squad that lost 2-0 to Nigeria in their first-ever continental final – only to return this year as coach to guide her side to the winners’ podium watched by thousands of Moroccan fans, who could only admire and applaud.
“You always look back to go forward. You always look back at what you could’ve done better. It’s a cycle. But I am just glad that we’ve brought this medal home for the country,” Ellis told journalists at OR Tambo International having landed back from Morocco to a rousing welcome home celebration.
Thank you coach Ellis, you’ve made it all worth it for your generation.