As the coach of South Africa’s women’s football team Banyana Banyana — the continent’s reigning champions after winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations — Desiree Ellis is an inspiration to many girls and women in South Africa and around the world.
A lifelong athlete, Ellis recalls playing a variety of sports at school, but football was always her favourite. As a child, she could be found playing in the streets with her cousins almost daily.
In 1978, she got her first big break playing for Athlone Celtic. She then went on to realise her dream of joining the South African national team in 1990 on February 11 — the same day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
From 1994 to 1995, she was the vice-president of the Western Province Women’s Football Association. Nominated for the African Woman Footballer of the Year Award in 2000, Ellis retired from playing in 2002, the same year she was awarded a Silver Presidential Sports Award.
An ambassador for the 2010 Fifa World Cup and appointed as interim manager of the national team in 2016, she became the head coach of Banyana Banyana in 2018.
Her impact has been immense — she has coached the team through various milestones, from ranking 50th in the world to winning the continental title this year. Her incredible accomplishments have garnered her recognition as the Confederation of African Football’s Women’s Coach of the Year three times in a row — in 2018, 2019 and 2022.
Ellis encourages parents to support their children’s dreams, even if they are “unconventional”.
She says: “My late father and mother supported me, so I never minded what people thought.”
Driven by a desire for excellence, Ellis believes football has an important role to play in nation-building, citing how millions of people gather to support a national team as an important indicator of sport’s impact on society. This, along with the joy millions experience from watching a game, keeps her passion for football alive.
She also sees drawing children into sport as a way to improve and change their lives and circumstances because, as she puts it, it definitely changed hers.
Banyana Banyana’s victory has validated the dreams of many girls and women who want to enter professional sports, and Ellis would like them to know that there is a place for them in the arena. Being a player isn’t the only role, she says — there are also positions in management, coaching and administration open to those passionate about the field.
Ellis is active in her Cape Town community, where she started her own foundation and works with other organisations in Salt River and Hanover Park to support and uplift those in need.
Inspired by a desire to do her best and to see the positive outcomes of sport manifest in South Africa, she continues to play her part, garnering success for herself and others she meets along the way.