Sport

Women’s World Cup: From meat-packer to South Africa coach

We want to make sure we are never forgotten.”

South Africa are competing in their first women’s World Cup and are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.

But that isn’t a barrier for Desiree Ellis, their manager who captained her country during a nine-year international career.

The 56-year-old was born in Cape Town, grew up during apartheid and faced stereotyping every day while trying to make it as a footballer.

South Africa face China in their second game of the tournament in Paris on Thursday.

Although they lost 3-1 to Spain in their opener on Saturday, former Tottenham Ladies boss Ellis tells BBC Sport her team have already achieved “the ultimate dream” simply by qualifying.

  • Who are the stars at the World Cup?
  • Fixtures, groups and BBC TV coverage

‘They said a girl couldn’t play football like that’

Before moving to England and making over 300 appearances for Spurs Ladies, Ellis was playing football with boys in her native country.

It wasn’t until after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison that a unified national team were formed for the women of South Africa.

Ellis was called up for the trials in 1993, at the age of 30, and was made vice-captain – later wearing the armband full-time. She scored a hat-trick on her debut in a 14-0 win over Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

But on her way back from that match in Johannesburg, the team bus broke down. Ellis couldn’t make it back in time for a late shift, working at a meat-packing market, and she was fired.

“For three years I was out of work, just doing odd jobs here and there,” said Ellis. “It was tough but I was living my dream.

“Eventually, I got a new job and I played in the national team until I was 39. I had worked at a meat market. I made spices and made sure there was enough stock.

“I also had that door sales job in South Africa that many people have. It’s where you walk for miles and miles and try to sell door-to-door. At the end of the day you don’t sell anything and just come back home.”

Unemployment was a challenge but Ellis had already fought off bigger issues during her football career – gender stereotyping.

“I remember my first proper game. I was a substitute. My dad was the only supporter on the field,” said Ellis. “I came on and scored a goal and we won 1-0.

“Many people back then didn’t think it was right for girls to play football. People would say I wanted to be a boy but I just loved football. I had the support of my parents and that for me was important. Many kids don’t have that.”

Ellis was just 15 at the time, but a week later she was forced to undress in front of her team-mates to “prove” she was a girl who simply had incredible talent.

“I was flat-chested and short-haired,” said Ellis. “They said a girl couldn’t play football like that. My dad said ‘pull down your pants’. I did and then I just carried on playing.”

Living through apartheid in South Africa

Apartheid affected every aspect of life in South Africa from 1948 to the early ’90s. Black citizens struggled against a political system enforcing a racial hierarchy.

Ellis’ family were among those who struggled before benefiting from the movement led by Mandela.

Her father, an ever-present during Ellis’ football career, supported and encouraged her love of the game.

“My father had the belief that I could go, do and be whatever I wanted to be,” said Ellis. “So I went and played my football. At times, there were certain places we couldn’t go to. But we knew the country was changing and we just carried on and played our sport for the love of it.

“When Mandela was released, we then had a unified team. I came for trials and the friends that I made back then in 1993 are some of my greatest friends now. We still talk every day. That is what football has done for me.

“In every individual’s life you have setbacks and challenges but it is how you deal with them. I have never been a quitter. I’m not a perfectionist but I always want to do the best and be my best.”

Even after Ellis had achieved her dream – representing her country – she faced years of adversity thanks to unemployment. Now, she says, the sport has “evolved” and her team are given different opportunities.

“When I played in the national team, 90% of the players were unemployed,” said Ellis. “Now, 90% of the players have degrees, are still studying, are pundits on national television or ambassadors for huge organisations. Football has really opened a lot of doors.”

‘Nobody gave us a chance’

In 2018, South Africa, then ranked 50th in the world, came runners-up in the Africa Women Cup of Nations to 11-time champions Nigeria.

Despite losing the final in a penalty shootout, South Africa secured their qualification for the World Cup and it was considered one of the greatest days in the history of their national team.

Ellis said even in her “wildest imagination” she could not have foreseen South Africa competing at a World Cup and the thought of it still gives her “goosebumps”.

“As a player, I never had those opportunities. For anybody the ultimate is the World Cup,” said Ellis. “Nobody gave us a chance when we played Nigeria in the Afcon. We are definitely underdogs. It is our first time at the World Cup and it’s not an easy draw.

“I think the support that has come from our federation has been fantastic. Without them, this wouldn’t be possible. We needed a proper federation to qualify for the World Cup and now… Yay!

“We want people to be able to say ‘wow’. We want to make sure we are never forgotten. Can you imagine if we do well? What will happen next?”

The “magnitude of what the team had done” had not been realised until South Africa returned home to face the Netherlands in a friendly in January and were given an incredible reception by their supporters.

And their achievements had not gone unnoticed outside of the sport.

“If you look at the messages of support on social media, it has been amazing,” said Ellis. “Even the president called us when we were in Ghana [in the Afcon] to wish us good luck for the final.

“In parliament, I got mentioned in the president’s speech. It shows how football is changing but it has to be continued with results. Slowly but surely, things will change.”

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer, bringing more live free-to-air women’s sport across the BBC this summer than ever before. Complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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