‘Even my friends thought it was impossible’: Singapore’s newest football star Lionel Tan on goalscoring exploits

The own goal he scored on his debut was because he refused to take a biscuit from one of his coaches, jokes Lionel.

Seif Umar

Certified football, Formula One and teh tarik addict.

Published: 27 April 2023, 4:44 PM

As far as cliches go in football, “it takes a team effort to win a game of football” is right up there. Even if it means having a defender scoring goals for the team. 

It was Lionel Tan, Singapore’s newest capped player – who rose to the occasion for the Lions in the last international break.  

Having received his first ever call up for the Lions in the recent International ‘A’ friendlies against Hong Kong and Macau, Tan went on to score in back-to-back matches against Hong Kong and Macau.


The 25-year-old defender was a graduate from Singapore Sports School. PHOTO CREDIT: FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE


What was more special was that the 1.84m tall defender scored while donning the number nine jersey, which is usually worn by strikers.

His first goal, incidentally, was a “reminiscing moment” as he had scored his first goal for the Singapore Under-22s against Hong Kong. 

The Lion City Sailors defender also had the unfortunate moment of scoring an own goal on his debut. Ironically, one of the coaches, Noh Alam Shah, had “jinxed” him. 

“He told me that I was going to score against Hong Kong again, and then jokingly, he offered me a biscuit. I refused because I didn’t feel like eating it. 

“He told me afterwards I was going to score an own goal too, and look what happened. I scored a goal and an own goal in that very game!” Lionel quips. 

Rather than allowing the mistake to affect him, Lionel stayed strong and bounced back stronger in the game. It was enough for the coaches to put their faith in Lionel for the next game against Macau – where he went on to score again. 

“It’s about staying mentally strong. I needed to quickly move on and focus on the next game. I couldn’t let one goal affect my overall performance. I thought I was playing well before that unfortunate mistake,” he added. 

Scoring in the first two Singapore matches marked Lionel as one of the few Lions to have done so.

“I definitely dreamt of playing for Singapore, but dreaming of scoring in my first two caps? It was a pleasant surprise to me!” he chuckled.

“Even my closest friends thought it was impossible, because it was extremely rare for a defender to score in back to back games!”


Lionel also explained that his first two games for Singapore gave him the platform to prove himself on the international stage. PHOTO CAPTION: FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE


Though having impressed for the national team, Lionel knows that he has to keep up his performance at the club level in order to keep his place in the Singapore squad. Lionel has played a big part in helping his team to third place in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) table so far, having joined the team at the start of the year. 

It was a move that showcased Lionel’s growth as a player, having made his professional bow with Hougang United in 2017. 

A year later, Lionel made the move to Young Lions as he had to serve his national service.


As the youngest team in the league, Young Lions aims to expose talented young players to professional football. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/@YG LIONS


Lionel said he enjoyed his time there, as he gained a lot of useful experience and advice from veteran national players like local football hero Fandi Ahmad, who was the head coach at the time. 

Despite the struggles for the team as a whole, Lionel felt the challenges provided him a platform for growth.

“I took up a lot of responsibilities when I was there. At 22, I was one of the older players in the squad. I felt it was also a very good year for me, because I developed well as a player,” he added. 

Lionel returned to Hougang United in 2020, where he spent the next two years as a regular starter at the heart of the Cheetah’s defence. 

Spending two further years, Lionel played a big role in helping the club earn their first silverware, winning the Singapore Cup in 2022.


Lionel was part of the cup winning squad which also included other national team players like Sahil Suhaimi and Shawal Anuar. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/@HOUGANGUNITED


After cementing his reputation as one of the better players in the local football scene, Lion City Sailors moved to secure Lionel’s services for the 2023 season.

It was a move that also allowed Lionel to challenge himself further. The Sailors need no further advertising. As the first privatised club in Singapore, they boast their own training ground, with facilities unmatched by other local teams.

Then, they also have top players in Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes in their ranks. 

Lionel said that the first few months with the team have felt “fantastic”. He also shared that his move to the Sailors was a “step up” to the highest level of professional football in Singapore, stating that the mentality with the club is “all about winning and being competitive even during training sessions.”

Despite the increased competition, Lionel still enjoys coming into training, saying it makes him “hungry to push himself more” and feels more determined to make a name for himself at the club. 

In fact, Lionel has been seen with a smile on his face so much that others have questioned why he was always smiling.

“I think football is something you must enjoy doing,” shared Lionel.

 “There will definitely be difficult moments. The training sessions were quite tough for me to adapt to at first, but with the right mentality and attitude, I eventually got used to it.”


Tan also mentioned his gratitude to train with players with vast experience such as Maxime Lestienne and Hariss Harun. PHOTO CREDIT: LION CITY SAILORS


While it’s still early days into his career with the Sailors, Lionel has big goals. Apart from performing well enough to earn regular call ups with the national team, he hopes to win more trophies. 

“With the Sailors, I want to win everything. I want to win both the league and the Singapore Cup, and do well at the Asian Champions League tournament. I don’t really care how we win it, I just want to win it,” he said.

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