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The 19-year-old speaks to about being a trailblazer for women’s football in the South-east Asian island-state and playing for the Borussia Dortmund women’s team, which finished the 2023/24 season unbeaten in the fifth-tier Landesliga.

Danelle Tan is used to being a history maker.

The 19-year-old holds the records for being the youngest footballer to play for Singapore’s under-19 women’s national team, aged 13, and the youngest goalscorer for the senior national team, aged 14.

She’s believed to be the fifth-youngest international goalscorer in women’s football, and is also the first Singaporean woman to play football in a European league.

All impressive achievements in their own right. But when asked by if she sees herself as a trailblazer, Tan says she would prefer to be an inspiration, and it’s for others to decide if she’s a trailblazer.

Speaking from Germany, where she plays her club football for the women’s team of the globally famous Borussia Dortmund, Tan says: “It’s a big word and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it. I might be inspiring a lot of other young girls, but I believe that they will also go ahead and chart their own path.

“Maybe it’s just because I’m taking a newer path and showing girls that it is possible, and it’s sort of unorthodox, so some may consider me a trailblazer.”

Danelle Tan (wearing no. 9) playing for Singapore’s youth national team

Why Danelle Tan turned down a top college offer

The route to Germany was a circuitous one for Tan, who was born and raised in Singapore – a country in love with European football, but also one where the local set-up struggles to produce many top-level talents.

She got into the sport because her two brothers joined a club and she would be left at home on Saturdays when they and her younger sister, too young to be left unsupervised by their parents, went to training. “I asked my parents one day whether I could join them. I started training with the club and I think in my first training session I scored 12 goals,” Tan laughs.

But coming through Singapore’s state school system, with its emphasis on studies, meant things began to “get a bit tricky”, Tan says, with her constant absences for tournaments with her club and the national team.

So at 16, she moved to London to pursue her football dream, eventually landing a contract with the London Bees. “Moving overseas was more a question of when than if,” Tan says. “I knew that if I want to play football professionally, I can’t do that [in Singapore].”

She did well enough for London Bees that she was offered a scholarship to the College of William & Mary in the United States, which had a women’s soccer program in Division I of the American NCAA collegiate sports system. Tan would, once again, be the first Singaporean to achieve this.

But Dortmund made an approach shortly after, leaving Tan with a dilemma.

“It was definitely a tough decision. I went to William & Mary, talked to the coaches, spoke to the players as well, and they were absolutely lovely – there was almost nothing that you could dislike about the school and the people,” Tan recounts.

“But it boiled down to the fact that Dortmund is really, really special. The fans, the city, everything about it, it’s just so special. And it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. I always speak to my dad and my parents about this, that you can study at any time, you can get a degree when you’re 40, 50. But the time that you can play as a professional athlete, achieve your dreams as a professional athlete, is so limited.”

Danelle Tan (in yellow) going past the opposition goalkeeper while playing for Borussia Dortmund Frauen

Danelle Tan (in yellow) going past the opposition goalkeeper while playing for Borussia Dortmund Frauen (Aleks Czapla)

Challenges faced adapting to Germany

Tan has soared since joining Dortmund, and this season helped her team to winning the double: Dortmund won their fifth-tier Landesliga division without losing a game, scoring 124 goals (and conceding just six) as well as clinching the regional Kreispokal cup tournament.

“It’s an amazing feeling every time you just wear the jersey, there’s so much history,” she enthuses. “The fans here are incredible. The Dortmund men’s obviously have a bigger fan base, but a lot of them also still come to the women’s games and the women’s side is still very young, it’s only three years old.”

The adjustment to Germany was tricky at first, even bigger than the one Tan had experienced moving from Singapore to London two years earlier.

“The move to the UK was out of my comfort zone, but it was still really a baby step compared to the one I took when I moved to Germany,” she says. “London is very similar to Singapore: a very metropolitan city, very crowded, very busy, lots of things to do.

“Dortmund is a very different city. It’s a lot more peaceful. It’s very focussed on football – everyone in the city is crazy about football. It’s two completely different lives. I’m taking German language classes and that’s really helped me to assimilate into the culture.”

Danelle Tan in action in a game for Borussia Dortmund Frauen

Danelle Tan in action in a game for Borussia Dortmund Frauen (Aleks Czapla)

Learning from chess and advice for the future

Tan was a national youth chess player growing up, and still enjoys a game or two. She has played against, among others, Singaporean grandmaster Tin Jingyao.

But these days, it’s not much more than a distraction from her football. Besides, she explains, her style was always better suited to kicking a ball around on the pitch.

“My dad was an avid chess player so me and my brothers all played chess growing up to varying degrees in varying levels. I don’t think I was ever really that good and even now I just play for fun sometimes on online.

“I’m a very instinctual person, so on the football field that helps because it’s split-second, you’re deciding in the moment ‘Okay, what am I going to do? Let’s just go for it’ – sort of do first, think later. And that was kind of me as a chess player as well – you can understand how catastrophic that is, because as a chess player, most of the time the first move you think about is not going to be the best!”

So chess may not be a part of Tan’s future, but aiming to turn professional definitely is.

“I’m always looking forward and trying to push new boundaries and break more records along the way,” she says of all the times she has become the youngest, or the first, to do something. “My ultimate goal is to play football professionally, so that’s the thing I’m gunning for.

“It’s really nice to see that women’s football, and actually women’s sport in general, has been growing significantly over the years – but you mostly see that in Europe or in the U.S. It’s something that I hope also we’ll start to see in Asia and Singapore as well.”

And as her journey continues, she hopes to inspire more Singaporean girls to be the best at what they do.

“I always encourage young girls, when I speak to them or when they ask me questions: your path is going to be completely different to mine, and there’s no two paths that are going to be exactly the same. Everyone is going to do their own thing, reach their goals.

“If there’s a goal that you really want – and that could be anything: that could be getting to Cambridge, that could be playing professional women’s netball, or it really could be anything – at the end of the day it’s keep working hard, grab your goal by the hands and don’t let it slip away.”