(Reuters) – When South Africa played their first women’s international after readmission to global football in 1993, they were captained by diminutive midfielder Desiree Ellis, who carried the country into a fresh era for female footballers.
Now, 26 years on, Ellis is coach of the side and will again be tasked with leading the team into a brave new dawn, this time as they debut at the women’s World Cup in France next month.
Ellis has succeeded where many before her failed, coaching South Africa on the game’s greatest stage after decades of qualification heartbreak.
Drawn into a Group B at the finals that includes Germany, Spain and China, they face an uphill battle to advance to the next stage, but Ellis warns that no-one should underestimate their fight.
“This group is always competitive, whether we play (board game) 30 Seconds, five-a-side, have a recovery session or even football tennis. They know what is at stake,” Ellis says with a smile.
“This is a special group and you have the confidence in them. You have to have confidence in each other, which builds trust and in turn builds teamwork.”
Ellis has huge belief in her squad, a point proven as she watches from the sidelines as the players develop their own attacking set-piece routines at training.
“The players have sat down as a group and decided what they are going to do, so I am just monitoring the session and letting them lead. We will let them find what works and then see as a technical team how we can tweak it.”
That is not to suggest Ellis is a laid-back coach. She works tirelessly on planning and preparation, but believes giving players the freedom to devise their own plans adds to their World Cup experience and gives them a greater sense of responsibility.
“For me, it is all about the players, it is their show and their time to shine. They know what is at stake for themselves. You have players who would like to get contracts abroad. It is their opportunity,” Ellis says.
“We want to make sure the players enjoy the experience and absorb everything. It is about playing at the World Cup, but also enjoying the experience. That is key.”
Ellis admits she has had to tone down training in the last few days as the players clamor for their own piece of history in South Africa’s opener against Spain on June 8.
“The one thing in the players’ minds now is (not) getting an injury, but that is normal. We had to tell a couple of players to ease down, because right now it is all about trying to get into the first starting line-up.”
Ellis says nerves have yet to kick in, but adds South Africa are desperate to show that, after two-and-a-half decades of trying, they warrant their World Cup place.
“We are new at the World Cup and we are going out there to show why we deserve to be here.”
South Africa will play Norway in a final warm-up fixture on Sunday.
Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty