Desiree Ellis, Banyana Banyana Head Coach

By Jessie Taylor 

Only a third of the coaches at the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup were women. And among the 12 coaches was Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis. The dozen coaches were a record number for a sporting competition and significantly higher than in most other sports. But Desiree has long been a trailblazer in her field and an inspiration to sportswomen and young girls throughout South Africa and the continent.

Leading The Way in Women’s Football

Desiree led Banyana Banyana to their place in the World Cup almost 30 years after she lost her day job because she returned to work late after representing her country on the field. She played as part of the first squad of players to represent their country in a women’s football match and scored a hat trick against opponents eSwatini.

It took her almost 20 years, regularly representing her country, before she took up her coaching career. Between 2014 and 2016, she served as the national assistant coach under Vera Pauw, taking over the position in February 2018. Under Desiree’s leadership, South Africa reached the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) final in 2018, qualified for the World Cup for the first time the year after, won WAFCON in 2022 and competed in the World Cup this year. The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup took place from 20 July to 20 August and was jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand.

A Rising Star

Desiree was raised in Salt River, Cape Town, and showed a love for soccer even as a child. She would often get in trouble at school for jumping the school fence to play with the boys. She went on to play for Banyana Banyana for nearly a decade, amassing 32 caps, and for eight of those years, she held the position of captain. Much of her childhood consisted of street soccer matches played against teams from different streets, which would go on for hours. There is a mural of Desiree in Salt River in her playing days for Banyana Banyana.

The love for the game carried throughout the family, and her father, Basil, a keen footballer for a local club, took her to watch games between local clubs. She says her father played a key role in shaping her career, and although he was very critical, he would be the loudest in stands when she scored goals. “For me, it is not about fame and fortune; you have to have passion for this industry. Because I love the game so much, I practically trained every day and that is what kept me going,” she says.

Among Desiree’s commendations was being awarded Confederation of African Football Women’s Coach of the Year in 2018 after her team finished second place in the African Women’s Cup of Nations and qualified for the Women’s World Cup for the first time. Her contribution to the sport has been acknowledged through the awarding of South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga in gold.

Why Sport is Important For Girls

Research has shown that participation in sports among girls can have numerous positive impacts on their lives. Research led by UN Women and the Sport for Generation Equality Initiative has shown that sports can drive gender equality by teaching women and girls skills like teamwork, self-reliance, resilience, leadership and confidence. These, in turn, can reduce inequality between men and women in many other spheres of life: it can encourage female leadership in the workplace, reduce gender-based violence, and promote women’s equal economic participation.