CAPE TOWN – In football terms, if Benni McCarthy is the Mother City’s favourite son, then Desiree Ellis is Cape Town’s most-loved daughter.
Ellis, after stellar success as a player, and a former Banyana Banyana captain, is the current interim coach of the South African national women’s football team.
She has already achieved in her current position when inspiring Banyana to victory in the Cosafa Cup Championship in Zimbabwe in September last year. In doing so, Ellis became the first to win the Cosafa Cup both as a player and coach.
On Sunday, Ellis will call the shots from the bench when Banyana host Sweden in an international friendly at Cape Town Stadium (2pm kickoff), but she will still be doing it as a caretaker.
When asked about her job situation, Ellis replied: “It’s a question I can’t answer. As a team, we just carry on. Everyone is coming back from a break now, and I’m sure it will be sorted out very soon.”
Ellis attended Dryden Street Primary and Salt River High. And it was on these township streets that the football bug bit. As she explains: “We were four girls at the time and, when my brother came along, the family was too big and we moved to Hanover Park. But we still went to school in Salt River and it was from playing football in the streets with the boys, and during breaks at school, that was where it all started.
When I was 15-years-old, I was approached to play for a team called Athlone Celtic - to be honest, at the time, I didn’t even know they had girls’ football teams. But I joined, and that was to be the start of my football career.”
As a coach, she has equipped herself well, and continues to grow her knowledge and experience. Ellis has done coaching courses with the KNVB (Dutch football federation) through the Stars in their Eyes Foundation (intermediate, advanced and teaching skills); she also has Caf B and Caf A coaching licences.
Now, Ellis is preparing for Sunday’s friendly against a high-profile team like Sweden, Banyana’s first match in the Mother City.
“When I heard that the game was going to be in Cape Town, I said ‘yippee’,” said Ellis. “It’s the first time Banyana will be playing in the Cape, though we trained here for the Olympics. The City of Cape Town and Safa have come together to make this possible. I guess the criteria in order to get more national games in the Cape will be for people to fill up the stadium on Sunday.
“But I’m looking forward to it. We have been fortunate to have played teams in the top 10 in recent years and this is another opportunity. Against Sweden, there is a fantastic game in prospect. We hope to put up a good performance and get a good result against them.
“Sweden are a top-quality side, 10th in the world and fifth in Europe. It will be a tough match, but we are up for it. It’s an opportunity for us to see where we are at and what we need to do going forward.”
The interim Banyana coach, though, was clear about the ultimate goal the team has set for itself.
“We had a good year last year, and we have a big 2018 ahead of us,” said Ellis. “The big cherry on top for us is to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. We have been to back-to-back Olympics, but to qualify for the World Cup will take women’s football to a different level. We just have to qualify, it doesn’t matter how. We just have to do it.
“As a squad, we are always looking for new talent. We are already looking at the current Under-17 and Under-20 national teams as well. Banyana will always evolve because we want the best talent to play.
“There is already pressure just being in the national team. While there is added pressure because of the award (African Women’s Team of the Year), it’s important to stay humble. We were excited, but afterwards we just got back to continue the hard work.”
Ellis also highlighted why playing against top-quality sides like Sweden is important for individual players.
“Playing teams like Sweden is also an opportunity for other countries to scout our players,” she said. “For example, when we played the US, Janine (Van Wyk) was scouted and she went to play in America. When we played the Netherlands, Roxanne Barker was scouted. It’s great when our players go overseas, because when they come back their experience is important and it rubs off on the younger players.”