Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Banyana Banyana coach DESIREE ELLIS talks about the team’s success at AWCON, qualifying for their first ever World Cup and offers her views on the Ballon d’Or sexism row.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to have returned as golden girls?
Desiree Ellis: The reception we received on our arrival at OR Tambo International Airport was incredible. I could have almost cried from joy having seen those people come out to congratulate us. We received many messages on social media during AWCON but we didn’t expect that response back home. It really was something else... Our ultimate goal was to qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup and, when that happened, we had a bit of a celebration and we couldn’t stop it. The next day we travelled and prepared to face Nigeria in the final. The girls said, “Let’s see if we can make history twice in one tournament.” When you find yourself in a penalty shoot-out it’s a lottery and it could have gone either way but we left everything out on the field. I think the experience Nigeria have of playing in finals definitely counted in their favour. Having beaten Nigeria in the group-stage, we knew we could beat them again. When Nigeria missed a penalty in regulation time, I thought god must be smiling on us but it never happened and the penalty shoot-out went their way. You can train for a penalty shoot-out, which we did, and put each one away in practice. However, in a match situation, and even more so a final, the pressure is tenfold. (Nigeria won 4-3 on penalties for their ninth AWCON title). Post-match, we were disappointed but very proud because we had given everything we could. We were disappointed not to win but elated to have reached our goal of World Cup qualification. I’m also proud of the fact that we stayed true to who we are. We focused on our strength, which is keeping the ball on the ground and then passing and moving and had great shape.
Sport24 asked: What does it mean to qualify for the World Cup?
Desiree Ellis: Everyone wants to go to a World Cup but I don’t think the team realise the magnitude of what they have done by qualifying for the World Cup in France next year. We know we can get way, way better but we just wanted to show what are capable of. I’m very proud of the players for sticking to their guns, never wavering and going out there and fighting for each other. We have been to back-to-back Olympic Games and have competed really well. We played the top-ranked USA, the third-ranked French and the Netherlands, who are the current European champions. We had great preparation for AWCON but I think we have to triple our efforts with the World Cup in mind. We need to get into even better physical shape and ensure the team cohesion is really top-notch. We are not saying that we are going to win the World Cup but we want to go to France and make our mark. We want to ensure that when we leave the competition, no one will ignore or forget us. We want to play our type of football and work on moving the ball quicker and have better movement off the ball. By the time the World Cup comes along the plan is to be much better. We know what we want to do but have to improve in all areas. We are a team that is always going to create goal-scoring opportunities but we need to finish our chances in front of goal and prove even more clinical. What sets USA apart from the chasing pack? They are well-organised and each and every FIFA date they have friendlies lined up and play top-rate opposition. That is why they are where they are. It’s important for us leading up to the World Cup that we play against really good opposition to prepare ourselves because the quality in our leagues is not that fantastic... In terms of bidding to host the Women’s World Cup in 2023, SAFA have announced their intentions and winning the right to host the event would be amazing. The 2010 FIFA World Cup brought the country to a standstill and the whole nation was united like it was in 1995 for the Rugby World Cup and in 1996 for the Africa Cup of Nations. I can only imagine what it will do for South Africa and women’s sport in general if we earn the right to host the World Cup in five years’ time. It will make young girls dream.
Sport24 asked: How will women’s football be taken more seriously?
Desiree Ellis: The only way of changing perceptions is by performing. We have an attitude of gratitude to Sasol, who have sponsored us for nine years but we have always urged other corporates to come on board. Women’s football is a goldmine in all spheres. We don’t yet have a professional women’s national league in South Africa but the fact that we are able to compete with teams like Nigeria and Cameroon, whose players are mostly based overseas, shows the quality that we have. Achieving in top-notch tournaments speaks volumes about the players’ commitment and dedication. We are getting more mileage and media coverage. I always say that you have to earn the right and our good showing will open doors not just for football but all women in sport. TV and media networks want to be associated with winners and that is the way to change people’s minds and perceptions. DJ and presenter Martin Solveig asked the first ever women’s Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, if she knew how to twerk at the awards ceremony and I think the minute the question came out of the presenter’s mouth, he probably thought to himself, “Oh my word, what have I done?” At the time, I think he thought it was funny but not too many people agreed. He realised that he couldn’t take it back and the only thing he could do was apologise, which I see he has done via social media. I feel Ada handled it very well, and it could have been blown completely out of proportion if she hadn’t. She showed her class and proved the fact that women are multi-functional.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to be nominated for a CAF award?
Desiree Ellis: The CAF award nominations are fantastic and I always say that if the team does well, the individuals will stand out. (Ellis has been nominated for CAF Women’s Coach of the Year). There will be awards and rewards but I don’t generally coach to attain individual accolades. My fundamental goal is to have the team and players succeed. I can’t take all the credit for the team’s development because there are coaches that have come before me and it’s a collective effort from everyone. I work with a fantastic technical team. My assistant coach Thinasonke Mbuli, who is also the university national team coach, imparts invaluable input. Our performance analyst scrutinises the opposition and prepares individual player’s clips in order to improve them. We strategise on a plan and then it's up to the players to execute the plan. Our goalkeeper coach Sean Louw does a good job to get the shot-stoppers ready and we also have fitness trainer Sibusiso Mahlangu, who gets the ladies in top-notch physical condition. In terms of my predecessor, when Vera Pauw came in she implemented more structure and made us defensively sound. I have just added on a little extra because I could see what Vera, who guided the team to Rio Olympics qualification, was trying to do. She was only here for two years, so we continued her work as she had carried on with the work of previous coach Joseph Mkhonza, who qualified the team for the London Olympics. When I became head coach, I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel and it was a case of progressing the project where the previous coach left off. You try to change things and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Thankfully it has worked for us and the players have been fantastic. I definitely want to go further in my coaching career but I am still learning and growing. I have my CAF A License and would also like to do a CAF PRO license. And then in order to attain the UEFA PRO License - the highest qualification in world football - I first have to have the UEFA A and B Licenses. I love what I do and the people I work with. From my point of view, you cannot coach and not care about the players. I’m proud of Thembi Kgatlana and Janine van Wyk for being nominated for African Women’s Player of the Year. Thembi won the Player of the Tournament at AWCON so she could be the African Women’s Player of the Year and when people write Janine off, as they often do, she raises her game.
Sport24 asked: Who would be your dream dinner guests and why?
Desiree Ellis: I’m a huge Manchester United fan and would definitely invite Ryan Giggs and Alex Ferguson over to my place for dinner. Giggs played for one club his entire professional career and was so loyal. I admire the way he evolved as a player. When he got older, he was still able to do many of the things he did when he was younger but in a different way. He was the ultimate professional. In terms of Sir Alex, I admire the way he built the team. And the last Premier League title he won, he didn’t have the best team in the league but still got the best out of the players. The same can’t be said for Jose Mourinho - we are just terrible at the moment and I’m suffering badly as a Red Devils supporter. I don’t watch Manchester United’s matches too often because when I watch, we lose and sometimes when I don’t watch, we actually win! I would prepare a chicken dish and, in terms of the soundtrack for the night, I would play some gospel tracks because all glory goes to God.