Sports Legend: Desiree Ellis
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Banyana Banyna coach, Desiree Ellis, is a soccer wunderkind. She has played 32 matches for South Africa, was chosen as ambassador for the FIFA World Cup and was awarded the 2018 CAF Women National Team Coach of the Year Award. Marguerite Van Wyk discovered she is proud of her humble roots, ‘mother’ to her team and attributes most of her success to God...
By: Marguerite Van Wyk
She dreamt of becoming a lawyer, worked in a butcher-shop, as spice mixer, and has done other odd jobs, like door-to-door sales to make ends meet in the 90s, but today Desiree Ellis is a sport legend, both locally and abroad. She is hailed as one of South Africa’s soccer wunderkinders.
One of her proudest moments was when she made history by becoming the first South African to win the 2018 CAF Women’s National Team Coach of the Year Award, the year when she was appointed head coach of Banyana Banyana (girls girls).
It was a great year for her team, who had also qualified for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, scheduled for June in France this year. And team member Thembi Kgatlaba won the 2018 CAF Goal of the Year, as well as the CAF Woman Player of the Year trophies.
But Desiree has not forgotten her humble roots. She grew up in Salt River and Hannover Park, and both her parents, Nathalie (retired) and Ernest (who passed away in 1988), worked very hard to support the family. After school Desiree, and her siblings, stayed with her grandmother.
‘’We used to play soccer with my cousins, mostly boys, after school,” she explains. “We challenged the other kids to play against us and had lots of fun,’’ she remembers.
‘’My parents were always supportive of me playing soccer. I was never told it was a game for boys,” she shares. Her dad was one of the driving forces in her life. ‘’He used to be very critical of my game, but behind my back, he boasted about my achievements. I always wanted to make him proud,’’ she says.
‘’Soccer has opened many doors for me, and still does,” she continues. “It is my God given talent. You never know what He has planned. I feel so blessed that I have received so much support to make my dreams come true.’’
When she was chosen for her international debut in 1993, Desiree was 30. ‘’At that age, many players retire,” she says with a smile. “We played against Swaziland and I couldn’t even afford boots. Someone graciously sponsored clothes for the game. ‘’
As centre midfielder, most of her career, she scored a hat-trick in her very first game. The following year she became captain of Banyana Banyana, until her retirement in April 2002.
‘’When South Africa hosted the Africa Women’s Cup in 2000, we finished in second place and I was very proud to receive the Silver Presidential Sports Award,’’ she recalls. That year Banyana Banyana won the COSAFA trophy, their first award and an equally huge highlight.
Desiree is a natural leader. She says it is about “the package”. ‘’You have to encourage, care and back your team. Sometimes you have to stand back. I always try to treat others the way I want to be treated,” she insists.
The Banyana Banyana players form an integral part of her life. ‘’People don’t always realise how much effort the team puts into making South Africa proud, but I can assure you, together we are strong, and we work hard at it. It is not about the awards, but about giving your best for our country.
"We have mentoring and motivational programmes and I regularly discuss their progress on an individual level. The players have to value their worth and believe in themselves in order to play well. I always tell them criticism is part of life, whether you do things well or poorly,” she says. “That said, they are true to themselves. I am happy.’’
Although she doesn’t have children of her own, she regards herself as a ‘’mother’’ for the ‘’girls’’. ‘’I have many non-biological kids,’’ she laughs.
She is adamant that women should celebrate each other’s triumphs. ‘’Sadly, females often suffer from a ‘pull each other down syndrome’ in a male dominated world. My mother, a rock, has taught me to encourage other women to realise their own strengths and help them to find theirs, “Desiree concludes.
“Not only in sport, but in all spheres of life. How else will women make progress? We need each other.’’