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In a six-part series, The Straits Times profiles people who have made an impact in various fields by trusting their instincts and keeping faith in their skills. In this second instalment, assistant sports editor Rohit Brijnath speaks to footballer Danelle Tan, whose trust in her skills made her the first Singaporean woman to play in a European league.

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On a sunlit afternoon comes love at first shout.

“Are you Danelle?”

The kid is nine, he’s wandering by at The Boys’ Brigade campus, his name is Tristan and he knows his football. Danelle Tan is a 19-year-old, 1.7m pathbreaker in colourful boots, the first female Singaporean footballer to play in a European league, and the kid is besotted.

Will you sign my hand?

It’s only the start. He asks me for paper and wants that autographed, too. Then he disappears, only to return with another kid, boots, a glove, a shin guard.

Can she also sign his other arm?

You don’t want to tell him the scribble will wash off, but what she’s doing won’t. She’s a writer of indelible history, venturing into Europe, kicking down Singaporean stereotypes of size and gender and scoring 16 goals in 27 games for Borussia Dortmund’s now-fourth division amateur women’s team. With every dribble through a foreign land she’s carving a road for the next Singaporean kid with an outsized dream.

Tan, who has a chirpy coating of confidence, arrived only the night before but is eager for a workout. She can’t stop because she’s come too far. She can’t stop because she isn’t yet a professional, paid footballer and so her expedition must continue. She can’t stop because there’s a saying she heard once which she holds close like a sporting prayer: “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re finished.”

Toughness in sport isn’t muscle and it isn’t a stare. Toughness is a quiet, gritty equanimity on desolate days. Toughness is trusting you have the skill to endure. This toughness lives in Tan, it’s there in her bones, in her story and in the advice she gives.

“Play boys.”

It is, she’ll tell you, “the fastest way you can improve”. It’s getting “thrown out of your comfort zone”. It’s wearing harder tackles and facing searching stares. What is this girl doing on our team?

So you show them.

When she moves to England’s Mill Hill School, she’s 17 and her first training day is with the boys’ team. It’s a hard day, “super cold”, the boys don’t know who she is and they’re questioning. So she replies.

“I nutmegged a guy and went on to score. And then everyone was like, ‘Oh, this girl can play’. And after that they start passing to you.”

Proof is what she has to keep offering – to coaches, to peers, to herself in the mirror. Proof requires resilience especially if you’re an outsider. Proof is believing in yourself because if you’re a female athlete, often very few people do. But, as with any explorer, any discovery requires early hardship.

With every dribble through a foreign land, footballer Danelle Tan is carving a road for the next Singaporean kid with an outsized dream. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

There’s no dad, she says, at the end of training in Germany. No one to ease the ache of loneliness because everyone in the locker room is laughing in another language. No one to listen to her on bad days when her touch is off. No, it’s just her and the walk home in the winter dark with questions.

“Am I even improving?”

Everything requires speaking German, from friendship to buying groceries. “I really underestimated the challenge of the language,” she says. She loses her keys and how does she explain this to a locksmith? She can’t decipher the microwave instructions and instead of heating a pizza, presses “cook”, and smoke billows and the fire alarm goes off.

It sounds amusing now but she was 18 and negotiating an unfamiliar landscape away from the cosseted world of Singapore. Chasing a sporting dream is scary and nothing is inevitable except a rapid growing up in this lonely classroom. “Who teaches you to live in a country by yourself?” she says. “They don’t teach that to you in school.”

But sport offers you opportunity – think of them as wings – and Tan learnt and she flew. Her German improved (she speaks English on the field to her teammates, they speak German to her), her journaling calmed her and solitude was met with endless reading. And always she keeps pushing, her desire a spark which won’t die in the cold and the rain. As that old sage Roger Federer put it, “You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments”.

And so even if the Dortmund weather makes a summery Singaporean recoil, she runs. “It feels good in the sense that when you’re doing it in harder conditions, you know no one else is doing it. It sort of drives you. Like, ‘Okay, it’s the cold and I am going to do it… My opponent is not gonna do it’. This is the extra edge I’m getting. And so that’s how (she laughs) I try and delude myself.”

Footballer Danelle Tan can’t stop because there’s a saying she heard once which she holds close like a sporting prayer: “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re finished.” ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

And this is what the best athletes – or musicians, actors, even corporations – do, they stay steadfast in rough winds, swear allegiance to effort and adapt. And so when heftier European players barge Tan off the ball, she doesn’t pout. She just gets faster, smarter, braver.

“You have to hold your own and get stuck in because if you’re not going into the challenge 100 per cent, just sticking out your leg, it’s very dangerous. And also you’re never going to win the ball. So if you want to go in, you have to go in full.” To get the ball and also respect.

For this first Asian to play for the Dortmund women’s team, three words echo in her head: “Trust your training.” When anxiety swirls like a tempest before big games, she remembers the skills and sweat which have brought her so far. To be precise, over 10,000km from Siglap, across borders, past discomfort, and into the consciousness of a nine-year-old, autograph-pleading Singaporean boy.

Tan plays chess but it’s a deliberate sport and she prefers football’s instinctive language. She talks fast, exuberance and words spilling out of her, and then it’s time to pose for the camera. The gifted Straits Times photographer, Kevin Lim, is lying prone in the goalmouth, photographing her as she fires shots into the netting. In the snap of her boot meeting ball, you can hear the music of her timing.

After a few minutes, as he searches for the right angle, Lim asks if she can hit the ball directly towards him and above him.

Sure, she says, and smiles.

“I won’t hit you, Kevin.”

He doesn’t flinch. Not just because he’s a pro but because he’s seen her kick the ball for a few minutes and he just knows. The skilful control of the gifted right boot of Danelle Tan can be trusted.