From Dryden Street to Soccer World Cup

Desiree Ellis coach of South Africa during a press conference at the Stad Mosso, in Montpellier, during this years FIFA Womens World Cup in France.

Multi-award winning national women’s team head coach and former Banyana Banyana captain, Desiree Ellis, the only person to win the COSAFA Cup as both a player and a coach, reminisced about her footballing journey from the streets of Salt River.

Born into a football loving family in Heideveld, Ellis spent most of her younger days in Salt River and Hanover Park.

A pupil at Dryden Street Primary School, Ellis’ palpable love for the game started at the age of six.

She played numerous sports, including hockey and netball, but football remained closest to her heart. She attended Salt River High School and spent most weekdays playing on the corner of Greef Street and West Bank Road with the boys. “Shelley Road was quite a distance to go to,” she said, referring to the closest soccer field.

She said street soccer, involved a mixture of boys and girls, and, nobody would get hungry, until the street lights went on and their parents called them home.

Ellis, a short speedster among giants, started off as a striker and rightwinger for Athlone Celtics.

Her parents took over the club and all her siblings played soccer.

She said her late father, Ernest, was one of her biggest critics and her loudest supporter, on and off the field. His constructive criticism helped her improve as a player and a leader.

“My father wasn’t the type of person to say “you had a good game”, he would say “you can improve here or there” and then when someone else asks him how you played, he would say to them “she had a good game”.

He was very critical when it came to improvement which helped us a lot,” she said.

“I think the support from my parents is what helped me to take soccer seriously. If they said I couldn’t play I would have probably still sneaked out,” she said.

From Celtics, she then joined Wynberg St Johns, Choices United, Moonlighters, St Albans, Cape Town Spurs and Spurs Women FC.

When Cape Town Spurs amalgamated with Seven Stars to form Ajax Cape Town, the women’s team’s name was changed to Spurs Women’s FC.

She first made the provincial team in 1978 for under-15, and her call-up to play for the national team came when she was 30 years old. On her debut for Banyana Banyana in 1993, she scored a hat-trick in the team’s 14-0 win against Swaziland. She played midfield for Banyana until 2002 where she captained the side to a 2-1 victory against Zimbabwe to lift the Cosafa Cup trophy.

With more opportunities opening up for women to sign full-time professional contracts, Ellis remembers a time when national squad members, unlike their male counterparts, held regular day jobs.

She said that once, upon returning home after playing for Banyana Banyana, she lost her job.

The minibus they were travelling in had a puncture and she was late for work. This was a turning point in terms of her football career.

Later, she earned her coaching licences, joined a number of NPOs, including the Stars In The Eyes non-profit organisation, which helps coaches and players from previously disadvantaged areas.

The NPO was supported by the Dutch Football Association.

In 2010, she was an ambassador for football during the Fifa World Cup. Her next big breakthrough came when former Banyana Banyana coach, Vera Pauw asked her to become her assistant coach.

“I didn’t believe this at first but I joined her and it was a learning journey,” she said.

In 2015, 15 years after winning the Cosafa Cup as a player, she won it as a coach and the team were named the Confederation of Africa Football (CAF) Team of The Year.

Last year she was appointed as the full-time head coach after spending three years as the national women’s team interim coach.

The tactician said, after they beat Mali in the African Women Cup of Nations semifinals and qualified for the Women’s World Cup, she doesn’t think any of them slept that night even though they still had the final to play. 

She said qualifying for the World Cup was the result of laying a foundation with hard work and dedication by the players, management and the whole team’s support.

“We always look at our circumstances and think we cannot achieve. Look at Benni McCarthy, Haashim Domingo, songstress Vicky Sampson and many others from challenging backgrounds. You look at them and think it cannot happen to them but we all had a challenge that we had to overcome. Everybody has an opportunity in life, sometimes you get a second opportunity, but you have got to give it your all because you never know who is watching.

“Look, I’m in Johannesburg right now and my mom is in Hanover Park because we gotta do what we have to do. So don’t let your circumstances determine you.”