“I don’t care what anyone else says, I am an Olympian,” says Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis with a bright smile.
It is true that she’s an Olympian, but only on a technicality. She went to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as an assistant to then-head coach Vera Pauw. During her eight-year playing career for the national team, which started at the late age of 30, Ellis never played in a global competition.
But her life as a coach has given her the opportunity to right the wrongs of her playing career. There are two urgent matters she’d want to address during her stay in Ghana for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon), which kicks off today: win the Awcon and, by doing so, qualify for the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup in France.
“I was excited when I went to the Olympics with Banyana Banyana. It was a big eye-opener for me. It was a tournament on a higher level but we held our own against the best in the world. What people must remember is that we don’t have a national league. So for us to even get to these tournaments is amazing. To go there and compete is remarkable. We’ve got to go one step better, not just to qualify but compete because we have quality players,” says Ellis.
Facing the old enemy
Banyana get their Awcon campaign under way on Sunday with a tough assignment against 10-time champions Nigeria. The Super Falcons are not just an African powerhouse, they’re Banyana’s chief tormentors, having defeated them in five of their six previous Awcon meetings.
But Ellis remains confident and optimistic. “We have a good mix of youth and experience in our squad. The overseas-based players come with a lot of valuable experience as they play at the highest level. We also have a younger generation that hasn’t been there before. Who is Nigeria to them? They haven’t seen anything and don’t fear anything. Those are the ones who might spring a surprise or two,” she says.
Three days after facing the Super Falcons at the Cape Coast Sports Stadium in Ghana’s Central Region, Banyana will take on Equatorial Guinea, a team that denied them the title in the 2012 Awcon final. Equatorial Guinea controversially retained their place in Group B after they were kicked out of the tournament for fielding Annette Jacky Messomo, who was initially deemed ineligible. Equatorial Guinea challenged that decision and were reinstated just 10 days before the start of the tournament.
Ellis now has to change her plans, having prepared to take on Kenya, which had replaced Equatorial Guinea in Group B. But that’s just a minor adjustment because uncertainties have characterised her tenure, having spent more than a year as interim coach with an uncertain future. “Yes, there was that designation as acting coach, but for me, I never saw myself as acting coach. I was the coach,” she says.
Never just acting coach
“I prepared the team as best as I could. I didn’t look at the fact that I had the job in the interim. I looked into the future even though I didn’t know where we were going, whether I was going to be the head coach or they were going to get someone else. It’s like the acting CEO, they aren’t acting but they are the CEO who must make key decisions. If it wasn’t me who would have been in charge, I at least owed my country to ensure that the team is in good shape.”
The 55-year-old has served her country with distinction as a player and as a coach. She even defied an ultimatum from her full-time employer, who threatened that she’d be fired if she joined the Banyana camp before she made her debut. She chose Banyana and spent a year unemployed. But as a coach, she has also given players ultimatums to choose between Banyana and their jobs, despite them being paid peanuts for national service. When the players choose their jobs, they get the axe, like Amanda Dlamini, who was unceremoniously dropped from the squad that did battle in the 2016 Awcon in Cameroon.
“We’ve got to be open and honest. We’re having a selection camp, with all due respect, if you can’t make the selection camp, how do I then bring someone after that selection camp when I have already cut someone else? You need to see players that you haven’t seen for a while to be a part of a selection. If they can’t come to that selection camp, when everyone else makes an effort to come, then you’re changing your programme for one or two individuals,” says the Banyana coach.
“There are a lot of issues we haven’t discussed in the Amanda case and they are between me and her. For the sake of unity and harmony, we had to make a decision. We didn’t drop her, she had made a decision. It was unfortunate because she would have added so much value.”
Tough balancing act
Ellis’ biggest challenge is finding the balance between being firm and giving her players freedom. It’s a tough balancing act, especially coming after Pauw, who was accused by some of the players of running the team like a dictator – going as far as banning them from singing before matches. Ellis allows her players to express themselves on and off the field, which has seen Banyana play a brand of exciting and entertaining football. Players such as Linda Motlhalo and Thembi Kgatlana have thrived with that freedom.
“I like to give players responsibility. They are adults. They know what’s right and wrong. We don’t want to be policewomen because they know training starts at this time. We’re open. We talk about their studies and their lives. It’s important. You can’t be a coach and not care. It’s very important to make players feel at home and have proper interactions with the players.
“Some players you can scream at, some players you have to put your arm around them and speak to them gently. We’re open. Players will come with ideas. We won’t say ‘no’. We will think about it, try it out and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, we move on. It’s not about Desiree or [assistant] coach Thinasonke [Mbuli], it’s the whole package. We feed off each other. We have to do that because at the end of the day all we want is for the players to be free and play well. It’s not: ‘You must do this! You must do that!’ That’s not who I am.”