Sunday 23 July 2023, 02:30

Ellis, the driving force behind South Africa's rise

  • Desiree Ellis has been South Africa coach since 2016

  • Under her leadership, the Banyana Banyana have enjoyed notable success

  • FIFA supporting the development of women's football in South Africa

It is 8 June 2019 in Le Havre, France. Standing on the sidelines at the Stade Oceane, Desiree Ellis sings the South African national anthem, which is being played for first time in the history of the FIFA Women's World Cup™. The coach has tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat but somehow keeps her emotions in check. She carefully scans her players to ensure none are overwhelmed by this historic moment, the culmination of years of efforts to take South African women's football to the highest level, thanks to the work of the country’s football association (SAFA), supported by FIFA. "Competing at that World Cup was simply incredible," Ellis admits four years on. "It's the biggest stage you can be on and where legends are made. It can also be lifechanging, but it's hard to describe how you feel until you're there."

Desiree Ellis, Head Coach of South Africa at France 2019

The emotion was all the more acute given how far she had come to reach that point. Since taking the helm in 2016, the 60-year-old has led her side to back-to-back World Cups and delivered the country’s first continental title at the 2022 AFCON. Today, she feels a measure of satisfaction with the progress of women's football in her homeland and across the continent, compared to what she experienced as a player. The Cape Town native spent almost the entirety of her career in South Africa and represented her beloved Banyana Banyana 32 times. As a player, the chance to grace a Women’s World Cup came only once, at the 1995 CAF Women’s Championship, which served as the qualifying event for that year’s finals. Facing Nigeria in a two-legged decider for the continent’s sole berth, Ellis and Co were humbled 11-2 on aggregate by the Super Falcons, exposing the gulf in class between the two sides.

FIFA Forward’s supporting role

Much has changed, however, in the intervening years. Women's clubs and tournaments have multiplied across the continent, with better infrastructure helping to bridge the quality gap. Supporting CAF in this seismic shift has been FIFA, a major driver of the development of the women’s game, particularly through the FIFA Forward programme. Indeed, it was this programme that enabled South Africa to acquire an artificial pitch.

"This pitch is truly state-of-the-art, and it’s equipped with floodlights,” says Ellis. “It's very useful in preparing for games to be played on artificial turf against teams accustomed to that surface. As well as that, it's important to play on quality pitches that raises your team’s tactical and technical level. There are still pitches that are sub-standard in remote areas, but it's gradually being addressed."

Desiree Ellis pictured before the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 draw

FIFA's support goes beyond financial assistance, however, with world football’s governing body having shared their expertise in terms of development and high-level [administrative] structures. They have also provided human resources, such as football specialists, physical trainers and talent scouts. "We’re very fortunate, as all of this helps us a lot," Ellis says with a broad smile.

For her part, the South African coach is also delighted to share her skills whenever she gets the opportunity, such as through the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme. "It's a fantastic scheme that I’ve twice participated in,” says Ellis. “The world's best coaches share their experiences and knowledge with less experienced ones. It's interesting for me, even as a mentor, as I also learn from others. There aren't many female coaches, so when you climb the ladder, it's important to bring others along with you," she adds.

The global stage as platform to build on

"I’ve been coached by men for most of my life, and it's not a bad thing. Male coaches have achieved great things in the history of football and have contributed a lot to the women's game, and continue to do so," insists the only female head coach among CAF’s four representatives at the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023. "COSAFA, the regional confederation to which we’re affiliated, makes it mandatory for women to form part of the coaching team and to account for a set percentage of the staff. This is to force federations to provide more opportunities for female coaches, and we can see that in South Africa, it’s yielded good dividends."

South Africa Open Training Session - FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023

Today, Ellis is fortunate to have built up considerable reserves of trust and to operate in a stable environment supported by SAFA. Her team have gained experience, as have her coaching staff, with everyone dreaming of just one thing: to perform better at Australia & New Zealand 2023 than France 2019, where they were eliminated in the group stage with three defeats in as many games. A successful campaign would undoubtedly be the best catalyst for the further development of South African women's football, which has entered a new era with the deployment of FIFA Forward 3.0, which will allow the SAFA National Technical Centre to be equipped with concrete stands, new sanitary facilities and new changing rooms.