Desiree Ellis: Early Life, Playing & Managerial Career

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The South African women’s national team head coach Desiree Ellis has been on the football scene for over 20 years. She was among the first group of players on the team and transitioned into management after her playing career. 

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Most people know her for work, but there’s more about Desiree Ellis. Let’s explore that.

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Desiree Ellis’ Early Life 

Desiree Ellis was born on 14 March 1963 and spent her formative years in Salt River. Her grandmother contributed significantly to her upbringing as her father died in 1989, and her mother was out working. Ellis studied at Dryden Primary School.

Ellis got into football at six years old. Speaking to SMWX Radio in South Africa, Ellis talked about playing football in her neighborhood at Salt River with the boys. 

“I played in school with the boys, and I got into a lot of trouble because we were not allowed in the boys’ playground. I got out of detention by playing netball. After school, I’d head to my grandmother’s, and there were boys with whom I played on the street.”

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Desiree Ellis’ Career

At the time Desiree Ellis started playing. There weren’t any female teams, and thus she didn’t get a lot of opportunities to play. That said, she participated in a staff match against the boys’ team, which is how Ellis landed her first club Athlone Celtics in 1978.

She played for them until 1984, made 126 appearances, and scored 51 goals. From there, she moved to Wynberg St Jones, played 44 times, and netted 22 goals. The other clubs Ellis represented include Joyce United, St. Albans City, and Spurs Ladies. In total, Ellis made 600 appearances in her club career and scored over 350 goals.

Desiree Ellis’ International Career

At the international level, she represented Banyana Banyana 32 times. She surprisingly landed the chance when she was working at a market.

“I was working in a market and got a call to try for the national team. I met Vera Paw, who was the first coach. I made the squad as vice-captain and scored a hat trick on my debut. We won 40-0 against Switzerland. At the time, we didn’t play many international matches, so that’s where it all started.”

Ellis went on to have a good career representing South Africa. She did so until 2002 and won the team’s first-ever piece of silverware, the COSAFA Cup

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Desiree Ellis’ Managerial Career

Ellis’ was the assistant manager of Banyana Banyana under Vera Pauw. She got this position in 2016 and the top job in 2018 after Pauw resigned. She’s since been in that position and has led the team in numerous international tournaments. 

In 2019, Ellis led South Africa to its first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup after winning the semi-finals of the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations. Ellis explains the feeling of this historic moment.

“A lot of plan goes in behind-the-scenes to achieve this. Players were crying, praying, and screaming. The celebrations just went on and on. I don’t think anyone slept that night. We got a call from the President. When we got back to the country, we realized the magnitude of what we’d done.”

She further talked about her experience leading the country to its first World Cup.

“When we walked out to play Spain, we realized how big that moment is. When they played the anthem, I was very emotional and had to contain myself. The players didn’t allow the occasion to overwhelm them. For the first thirty minutes, we were magnificent. Thembi Kgatlana scored an amazing goal, something she occasionally does. We had chances to score more and were unfortunate to concede two penalties. “ Ellis said. 

In 2022, Banyana won its first-ever Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) and qualified for its second FIFA World Cup in Australia & New Zealand.

Banyana Banyana made history when they won their first match, scored their first points, and progressed to the round of 16. 

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Desiree Ellis’ Awards

  • In 2018, Ellis was named the CAF African Women’s Coach of the Year
  • 1983, 1993: WP Player of the Year
  • 2001: Presidential Sports Silver Award

Desiree Ellis has achieved what no one thought was possible to do in a country that doesn’t have a professional women’s league. She’s even made more history in 2023 and continues to achieve against all odds. 

Are you interested in learning about women’s football? These books on Amazon will help you.

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