Ellis's relish for the team burnishes her legend in South Africa

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Patience and determination are requisites after asking Desiree Ellis to survey her achievements as head coach of South Africa women's side. The 59-year-old former national team skipper will answer with tributes to an array of mentors, her predecessor Vera Pauw, other coaches as well as members of her support staff.

Pose again and then it will be talk of the team and the players who she has steered to successive semi-finals at the Cup of Nations and consecutive appearances at the World Cup.

Beseech anew and a flicker of the inside light briefly shines through before a rapid reset to the default position

"Not in my wildest imagination back when I was playing would I have ever dreamed about something like this.

"I think coach Vera helped a lot in the transition from player to coach. Having that experience there to guide me to be able to take over the national team was so helpful."

Squad players old and young are well versed in Ellis-speak on the primacy of the collective and hail her as a mother figure.


Adoration and respect perhaps inspired by Ellis's place in South African football history that gives her a licence to drive home her homilies on hard work and self-improvement.

"She is a force to be reckoned with," said South Africa midfieder Thalea Smidt.

"And now she’s taken the team to another World Cup. That says a lot about her. When she speaks you listen to a legend," added the 24-year-old who plays for Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa.

"She would probably be very modest and say: 'No, I’m not a legend.' But stats speak. And if you look at the stats, you’d put her under the category of being a legend."

Hers has certainly been a meteoric trajectory. Ellis became South Africa boss in 2018 and led them to the final of the Cup of Nations where they lost to Nigeria in a penalty shoot-out.

The trauma of defeat was mitigated by a first qualification for the World Cup.

It was almost a glorious debut at the 2019 competition in France. Thembi Kgatlana's 25th minute goal rocked Spain who turned the tide in the second-half with a brace from Jennifer Hermoso and a strike from Lucia Garcia. Defeats followed against China and Germany.


"I don’t think people saw our true quality at the tournament," said Ellis. "We showed some of it in the match against Spain but you need consistency. You always want to go back and do better."

Following the edgy 1-0 win over Tunisia in Rabat on Thursday night. South Africa will get that second chance and play in Australia and New Zealand in 2023.

"After the World Cup in France we had so many players that got contracts abroad and that gives an opportunity not just for those players but for the other ones in the group.

"It’s about getting women’s football in our country to a different level."

Zambia, who beat Senegal on penalties to reach the semis, will be the next hurdle to surmount in that quest for glory.

The sides meet on Sunday night in Casablanca for a place in the final on 23 July in Rabat.


"I remember the euphoria when we got back from the World Cup and people were talking about 2023 already back then," Ellis added.

With the 2022 Cup of Nations doubling as the qualifying tournament for the World Cup, the four semi-finalists are guaranteed a berth in the antipodes.

The losing quarter-finalists will take part in a repechage in Morocco for two places in the inter-confederation play-offs for berths place at the World Cup.

Those stakes added an extra strand of intrigue and intensity to the quarter-finals. All were rigid affairs.

After taking an early lead against Tunisia, South Africa failed to impose their dominance and add to their tally despite several good openings.

"I wasn't happy with the performance as the game went on against Tunisia," said Ellis.


"It was clear the players were looking at the clock and starting to panic and they started doing silly things especially after we missed the chances.

"We tried to calm them down and that’s why I changed the formation slightly to try and take control back. And yet we couldn’t even hold on to the ball and that is our strength.

But we showed grit and character."

Assets dear to the coach's heart. The Cape Town native featured in sides in South Africa and briefly in England before returning home to play with the Spurs Ladies team in Cape Town.

When South Africa abandoned its apartheid policies in the early 1990s, she went for trials for the national team and eventually played in South Africa's first international match against Swaziland in May 1993.

At the age of 38, she skippered South Africa to a runners-up spot at the 2000 African Women's Champinship - the precursor to the Cup of Nations.


She retired soon after leading South Africa to the 2002 Cosafa Cup. During that playing career, she collected a host of awards in recognition of not only her sporting prowess but her importance in the social context of the country's reconstruction.

Though she admits to her inexperience as a senior national team coach, prizes for her achievements have come too, most notably two women's coach of the year accolades from the Confederation of African Football, which organises the Cup of Nations.

But even when presented with such stats, they are swiftly downplayed.

"It’s never about me. It’s always about the team first. Individual accolades come with the team being successful.

"If the team does badly, then the coach is on the carpet,

"If the team does well, it's the coach. But you cannot take away the input and work that staff put in behind the scenes and they are not normally recognised.

"The players deserve to have the credit too but a lot of credit goes to the backroom staff. You cannot do anything without their individual input so the success is not mine alone."

Tellingly, it was in the analysis of South Africa's poor finishing during the Group C match against Burundi and the quarter-final against Tunisia that highlighted her zest for success.

"It's not about now," she said drily. "It's about clubs back home and players going back home and doing their work.

"Because when we get the players together for internationals we have very little time with them and there are a lot of things to work on.

"We challenge the individuals a lot to work on their finishing because we need to start converting those chances.

"You get two or three opportunities in matches and if and you don’t put it on target ... you know, that’s it. You're out."

And that's something she'd rather not talk about.

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