Olympic Games failure a crossroads for Banyana coach Desiree Ellis

Olympic Games failure a crossroads for Banyana coach Desiree Ellis
A tense Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis during the clash with Nigeria. Her side fell short of Olympic qualification. (Photo: Mohammed Chanjo / Gallo Images)

The South African Football Association is fully behind Desiree Ellis, despite Banyana Banyana’s Olympic disappointment.

Banyana Banyana’s players and technical team are still reeling from missing out on a trip to the Olympic Games for the second successive time. South Africa’s senior women’s soccer side were downed by old foes Nigeria in their quest to reach their third Olympics.

Banyana qualified for the Games for the first time in 2012. Then again in 2016. However, under the tutelage of current head coach Desiree Ellis, who took the reins right after those 2016 Games — the team has been unable to qualify for the quadrennial sports spectacle.

olympics banyana nigeria

Ohale Osinachi Marvis of Nigeria and a Banyana defender clash during the CAF Women’s Olympic Qualifier, Final Round, 1st Leg match in Abuja, Nigeria. (Photo: Mohammed Chanjo / Gallo Images)

In the aftermath of this latest disappointment for Banyana Banyana, which came courtesy of a 1-0 aggregate loss to the Super Falcons of Nigeria, some followers of the national team have called for the head of Ellis.

The loudest of those voices was former South African striker Portia Modise, who famously scored more than 100 goals in the colours of Banyana Banyana.

New vision

Modise was speaking on SABC’s Sports Night Amplified a couple of days after South Africa’s Olympic failure. The forward did not hold back in her criticism of Ellis, saying Banyana Banyana should have been victorious against the poorest Nigerian team she’s seen in her life.

“It’s my first time seeing such a poor Nigerian women’s team since I started playing football. We needed to beat that team. They didn’t have anything to scare us,” Modise said.

“Our coach has done well. She has put us on the map. But now we need someone with a second plan. Someone with a new vision, someone who can take us somewhere else. Just like she took us somewhere,” the respected Modise, who scored South Africa’s first-ever goal at the Olympics, said.

“It’s not like if you leave a position, you did not do well. You did well to put us [where we are] … We need to have a way forward. And the way forward is giving other coaches an opportunity to take over where Des has brought us,” the 40-year-old concluded.

The pulse of Banyana

This is Ellis’s eighth year in charge of the national team. Before that, she served two years as an assistant to previous coach Vera Pauw. Of course, before coaching, she was a founding member of Banyana and wore the captain’s armband in the national team colours before her retirement in the early 2000s.

As head coach, Ellis has achieved several Banyana milestones. She and her charges have also suffered heartbreak during their collective journey to firmly establish South Africa as a force in African women’s soccer, and a team with tons of potential in a global context.

Under Ellis, South Africa reached the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) final in 2018. They were narrowly beaten 4-3 on penalties by Nigeria during that match. As a result of reaching that year’s decider, they managed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Their debut appearance at soccer’s global showpiece – in 2019, was a baptism of fire. They lost all three of their matches, conceding eight goals and scoring just once. The team was unsuccessful in its bid to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, bundled out of the qualification stage by Botswana.

olympics banyana

Banyana striker Thembi Kgatlana celebrates during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games qualifier match against Tanzania at Mbombela Stadium on 27 February. (Photo: Dirk Kotze / Gallo Images)

Banyana Banyana bounced back after that setback to make history and win their maiden Wafcon title in 2022 after a handful of near misses at the continental tournament.

Then in 2023, the Ellis-coordinated collective rewrote history by becoming South Africa’s first senior soccer side to reach the knockout phase of a World Cup.

The team would have hoped to build on the magnificent displays of the past couple of years by being one of the two countries to represent Africa at the women’s 12-team soccer tournament in Paris.

Instead, Banyana Banyana’s stars have to dust themselves off and focus on their next objective, to defend the African title they won two years ago.

‘Ellis stays’

Despite some calls for Ellis to vacate the Banyana Banyana hot seat – for her sake and the team’s – the 61-year-old still has the full backing of the South African Football Association (Safa).

“I’m not going to respond to Portia. You can’t expect us, as an organisation, to respond to an individual player. We can’t do that. We are not interested in what any individual player has to say. That’s her view, her opinion,” Safa president Danny Jordaan told journalists.

Jordaan said Banyana’s failure to book a ticket to Paris was not solely on the shoulders of Ellis. He said that in sport, there was always a winner and a loser; unfortunately for South Africans, the loser this time was Banyana.

“Of course we wanted to qualify for the Olympics in Paris. It is a setback. But in football, it happens. You get setbacks. But you must continue. That’s how football operates,” the Safa boss stated.   

“As painful as it is, we have to move forward and build. And it will have to be with coach Desiree.”

By its nature, the job of coaching is not renowned for longevity. There are only a few examples of coaches who have stayed in the hot seat of any club for a lengthy period and maintained their success.

The best illustration is that of former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson, who successfully coached the Red Devils for more than two decades.

In South Africa, Jomo Cosmos reached great heights under the guidance of owner/coach Jomo Sono. Eventually, Sono’s stay in the hot seat became a liability for the club as they sank from being a Premiership club to the third tier of South African soccer.

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp will call time on his nine-year stay in Merseyside at the end of this season. The 56-year-old cited diminishing energy levels as a major factor for his imminent departure.

Of course, club and international soccer are two different spheres, both in demand, daily routine and player interaction. This means four-time Africa coach of the year Ellis may yet make more history with Banyana.

On the other hand, if she holds on for too long, she may dent her largely impeccable legacy with the South African national team. DM


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