National women’s soccer team coach Desiree Ellis was among the headline speakers at the third Cape Flats Book Festival, held at West End Primary School, in Lentegeur, on Sunday.
Having Ellis as a keynote speaker was a slick move on the part of the organisers, as the celebrated coach has a story to tell that many can relate to and may find inspiration from. She’s literally, as is described in her book, the girl next door who made it big, thanks to the support of friends and family and her own dogged determination.
Ellis sat down on the main stage for an interview with broadcast journalist, Lester Kiewit to discuss her book Magic, From Salt River to the 2023 World Cup.
Released earlier this year and written by sports journalist and author Luke Alfred, Magic covers Ellis’ 30-year journey from the streets of Salt River, where she earned the nickname Magic, to the highest echelons of women’s soccer.
The book offers readers a glimpse into the coach’s world, from Hanover Park and her early days at Athlone Celtic and later Spurs Women’s FC in Wynberg, to her call up to the national women’s side in the early 90s and hanging up her boots in 2002 before becoming a television soccer pundit and ultimately national women’s coach.
However, Ellis was quick to remind the audience that she wasn’t always the celebrated coach and that anyone can achieve success, regardless of their surroundings.
“To be successful you have to continually work on your craft. Nothing comes easy. I used to train every single day, people used to think I’m crazy, but I continued to train every day because I wanted to be at my best. That’s the only way to be successful,” she said.
The last time Ellis arrived home to a hero’s welcome was just over a year ago, at Athlone Stadium, following Banyana Banyana’s 2-1 victory at the Women’s African Cup of Nations (Wafcon) final against host nation Morocco, at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium, in Rabat.
Since then she’s led the national team to an impressive performance at the Fifa Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, in July, which included a thrilling 2-1 win against Italy in their opening group stage match. Although going down 2-0 against the Netherlands in their second fixture, Ellis and co held more than their own against higher-ranked opposition with a narrow 2-1 defeat against Sweden and playing to a 2-all draw against Argentina.
“I think we would’ve won the world cup,” she told the audience when responding to a question about what could’ve happened if there had been an earlier concentration on professionalising women’s sport in South Africa, along with rugby, that turned professional following the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Simple as that, said Kiewit, paraphrasing Ellis’ comments about the importance of treating women’s sport on an equal basis to that of men’s sport.
“When you look at this last world cup, we were ranked number 54 in the world. When you look at who played against, the rankings and so on, we didn’t have a chance. But the rankings I think are a bit skewed because countries in Africa don’t get to play against the top teams a lot and so you get your rankings like that,” she said.
“This world cup showed that you couldn’t predict an outcome or result. If we had taken our chances against the Netherlands we would’ve won that match because when the goalkeeper wins player of the match it tells you how well we played,” she said.