When Desiree Ellis was named Coach of the Year on Thursday at the CAF Awards 2022, fittingly she was sitting next to Senegal coach Aliou Cisse, who was the very first person to congratulate her.
Both former captains of their national teams that fell short of winning the African crown as players two decades ago, they both eventually achieved their dream of becoming African champions in 2022 as national team coaches.
Showing that with passion, patience and hard work success can eventually come and with time victory tastes all the more sweet.
Both were deservedly named Africa’s men’s and women’s football Coach of the Year at the CAF Awards, Ellis barely disguising even in her moment of individual triumph that the accolade would be hollow if she did not leave Rabat having guided Banyana Banyana to the African title just 48 hours later.
Cisse and Ellis shared a brief moment of celebration as the Senegal coach wished Ellis all the best for Saturday’s final. And just as Cisse had done in the AFCON final in Cameroon against Egypt, at the Moulay Abdellah Sports Complex last night Ellis too finally broke the jinx.
With her at the helm, after so many years of heartbreak and losses in no less than four previous finals, there can be no more beautiful story in African football than Banyana’s former national team captain finally leading them to the title of African champions.
She and Banyana had to do it the hard way, overcoming a passionate home team Morocco and their fans in a full-capacity Moulay Abdellah cauldron that was devastated by the 2-1 final loss.
Ellis lost the 2000 final as captain 2-0 to Nigeria at home and in the 2018 final as a coach to the same team 4-3 on penalties, following a goalless draw.
Cisse lost an AFCON final as a player with Senegal against Cameroon in 2002, missing a spot kick in the final. As coach he lost a final to Algeria in 2019, before this year finally leading Senegal to Africa’s AFCON holy grail as coach in a pulsating final against Egypt – prevailing ironically as a quirk from the football gods on penalties with Sadio Mane’s decisive kick.
And finally last night, it was the turn of those self-same football gods to smile down on Ellis and deliver the coveted trophy to her and Banyana.
“I am so happy. It has been a long time coming. We have worked so hard to get here. We came into this tournament knowing that we had to take it one game at a time and here we are as African champions. Congratulations to all the players and the team staff. This one is for you South Africa,” an emotional Ellis told CAF Online.
When referee Salima Mukansanga blew the final whistle, Ellis fell to the ground and looked up to the sky as she was quickly surrounded by her team members to congratulate her.
The journey of 29 years has finally paid off. After the medal ceremony, an elated Ellis took the trophy to the handful of South African fans that cheered them on and made their presence felt despite the cacophonous din of 50,000 Moroccan fans that made it to the Moulay Abdellah Stadium to support the Atlas Lionesses.
She repeatedly emphasised “This is for everyone back home. South Africa is going through so much right now. This victory will bring the country together.”
This is the first time that South Africa has won an African title since 1996 when Bafana Bafana won the AFCON at home.
And Ellis was quick to dedicate the victory to all Banyana’s former players and coaches who have been part of their long journey to the summit of African football.
And she made a point of saying the win was for star player Thembi Kgatlana, who suffered an injury that ruled her out of the tournament in the group stages, as she also acknowledged former captain Amanda Dlamini, who celebrated her birthday on Friday, a day before the final, and who was on hand in Rabat on CAF TV duty..
“This is for you Thembi and happy birthday to you Amanda. We cannot wait to go back home and celebrate with our fans. This is for them. They deserve this,” she added with a massive smile on her face.
She would have had little if any sleep last night, no doubt clutching the trophy and the gold medal tightly, but the journey home will be a triumphant one to a nation that will ululate with their national heroes.
“I don’t think I am going to sleep. I am going to be phoning home. I know my phone has gone crazy. This is for South Africa, for Sasol, for SAFA, for players that have come before, for coaches that have come before, for coaches that coach in women’s football. This is all for you. For you!!” a joyous Ellis beamed loudly to journalists in the post match mixed zone.
Selfless almost to a fault, this is a moment where she deserves to bask in glory and step into the spotlight she so richly deserves.
This is Desiree Ellis’ moment in the sun…