MONEY, fame, a bit of scandal and a glamorous lifestyle are what come to mind when one thinks of a footballer’s life.
But retired Banyana Banyana captain and star Desiree Ellis, 49, says things are very different in women’s soccer.
“We never played for the money or the fame, but because we loved it. It’s the money that spoiled the men’s game.”
While the profile of women’s soccer has been raised considerably over the past two decades, they are still lagging behind their male counterparts, she says.
The team recently qualified for the Olympics in London in July. This is one of many victories that have gone virtually unnoticed because coverage of women’s soccer is poor.
Ellis visited the team while they were training in Stellenbosch last week and said while it was going to be very tough for them, the Olympics would open many doors for women’s soccer.
The team’s success had been an eye opener, and sponsors were starting to realise their marketability, she said.
“It’s the women’s team keeping the nation’s football flag flying. Women have taken the lead.”
Ellis played for the first women’s national team formed in 1993 and scored a memorable hat trick during her debut against Swaziland.
The midfielder captained the team from 1994 until she retired in 2002. In her nine-year national career, she had 32 caps.
She said the state of women’s soccer in the country had improved tremendously since those days.
In the 70s there were no women’s clubs. Ellis, who lived in Salt River with her grandmother, played football in the street with boys. After school she’d drop her school bag, change her clothes and run outside to her waiting teammates.
She laughed as she remembered how her father Ernest often threatened to send her to school barefoot because she would ruin her shoes playing soccer. He was her role model, but also her fiercest critic. Today, Ellis often still takes to the streets to play.
She eventually joined the Spurs Ladies Football club, and tried out for Banyana.
During this time she had a day job mixing spices at a Lansdowne butchery. Once she went away with the club over a weekend, promising her employers she would be back in time for work. But the vehicle the team was travelling in broke down on the way home, making her late for work. Ellis was fired.
Making it on to the Banyana team remains the single biggest highlight of her life.
She remembers wearing her soccer shirt, washing it after each game and hoping it would dry in time for the next. It was the only shirt she had. At the time, the women players received a few hundred rand as winning bonuses.
“I can’t say football made us rich. But we got by,” she said. Luckily, Ellis was good at managing her money.
Since retiring, Ellis has been instrumental in developing women’s soccer. She now coaches at the Spurs Ladies Football club, where she first played.
She often scouts for talented girls and finds them playing in boys’ teams, which she believes gives them a bit of an edge.
Ellis is also an ambassador for the Spur Masidlale Soccer programme. In its eighth year nationally, the programme was introduced in Cape Town in 2011.
Primary school children – girls and boys – are taught soccer skills, but also equipped with life skills.
In each region, 10 boys and 10 girls, between nine and 13, battle it out over a 10-week period, each fielding a team of seven players plus three substitutes. “Children are taught skills like teamwork and discipline that can be applied in their everyday lives,” said Ellis.
Everyone who came into contact with the children would learn from them, which was how a difference could be made. She said many former football stars were “dying penniless”, begging, getting attacked or found themselves in all sorts of trouble.
It was important to instill in the young the values needed to be successful.