AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: Indonesia's Zahra Muzdalifah excited to play against Sam Kerr
20-year-old Zahra has already appeared 19 times for her country, making her one of the most experienced players in the young Indoensian squad for the Asian Cup.
A standout when Indonesia secured their place at AFC Women's Asian Cup India 2022 after a three-decade absence from the tournament, the talented youngster is now firmly focused on taking on the continent's best, starting with Australia on Thursday.
On the eve of Garuda Pertiwi's historic campaign, one of the team's brightest stars joined the-AFC.com to discuss her path to the international stage, what to expect in India and the ups and downs of being one of the most followed women's footballers in the world.
It was the moment Indonesian women's football had been waiting for since 1989.
In the unlikely location of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a delighted Indonesian women's national team celebrated in the middle of the pitch after overcoming Singapore for the second time in four days, ending one of the longest qualification droughts in the continent.
Like all of her teammates that night, Zahra Muzdalifah wasn't born the last time Indonesia took the field in the AFC Women's Asian Cup, and the sense of anticipation has reached the biggest stage in the Asian game has only intensified in the four months since their place in the Finals was secured.
"Of course, I'm excited!" she told the-AFC.com during the final day of the team's pre-tournament camp.
"We know that Indonesia hasn't been in the Asian Cup for 33 years, and we're going to play against Australia and Thailand, who are both World Cup teams, so I'm really excited to play against them.
"I feel proud. We have the chance to play against players like Sam Kerr and other professional players, so it's a good experience for us."
Australian captain Kerr is one of the biggest stars in the global women's game, with her recent shortlisting for the Best FIFA Women's Player Award evidence of her quality and status, but there is one area where Muzdalifah has even the Chelsea striker covered.
Emerging Indonesia forward has tapped into the passion of one of the world's ultimate football-loving nations, racking up nearly one million Instagram followers, putting her ahead of not only Kerr but all but a handful of female footballers on the planet in terms of popularity.
"There is a positive and negative thing in having a lot of followers," she explained. "First, I get a lot of support and people who always support me and tell me I can be better, but also, I get a lot of pressure. If I lose a game, people might think that 'Oh Zahra is just famous, she's not good at all,' but those people don't even watch our games. There is a positive and negative there."
She may be a powerhouse online, but Muzdalifah is laser-focused on showing her ability on the pitch.
Having turned 20 only last April, she has already appeared 19 times for her country, making her one of the most experienced players in the young squad selected by head coach Rudy Eka Priyambada ahead of this month's tournament in India.
She netted two goals at the 2018 Asian Games on home soil, and once against the Philippines at the AFF Women's Championship earlier that year, but Muzdalifah's path to the international stage has been far from conventional.
"Actually, it's not normal in Indonesia for a girl to play football, but I was different," she recalled.
"I was the only girl who played football in our team, and always against boys. People looked at me and always underestimated me, but I do what I love, so I don't care what people say. I just do it. Football is my passion and thank God, my family really supports me as well. It has been a good thing until now and I'm still focused on my football career."
"I used to be in a club with the boys, and we had tournaments outside of the country in Norway, Korea (Republic), Singapore and Malaysia, and we won. We won four times in international tournaments. Because of that, a lot of media came to me because I was the only girl and then everyone said, 'Oh there's a girl in the boys' team' and people in Indonesia knew that it's not only boys who can play, but also girls."
That long and often unpredictable road has now led Muzadlifah to the biggest tournament Asian women's football has to offer.
Ultimately the lowest-ranked team to have qualified for India 2022, Indonesia initially drew the short straw of being placed in the same qualifying group as world number 10 DPR Korea, but they were given a boost when the three-time Asian champions withdrew from the event.
According to Muzdalifah, that was a sign that 2022 would be Indonesia's year, and the ambitious youngster was keen to ensure the opportunity to qualify was grasped.
"I think it was God's plan," she declared. "(DPR) Korea and Iraq were not in our group and we then had to play only against Singapore, so I guess God really gave us a big chance to play in the Asian Cup. "I was like 'Wow, we're not going to lose against Singapore, we have to make it guys: It gave us more fire, knowing that we had the chance to play in the Asian Cup.'"
For the tournament itself, Indonesia lacks the experience of their Group B opponents, all of whom are bullish about their prospects of reaching the latter stages of the competition.
Australia, Thailand and the Philippines were all among the top six sides at the 2018 edition in Jordan, while not one Indonesian player has ever appeared at the tournament, but Muzdalifah is optimistic, not only about the weeks ahead but her country's long-term potential in the women's game.
"My goal is to finish third place in the group. My goal is that we can draw against Thailand, but against the Philippines – we have to win. In the long term, if things keep getting better in the future, I think we can make it to the World Cup. Hopefully."
Indonesia will begin their AFC Women's Asian Cup India 2022 campaign against Australia in Mumbai on January 21, before facing Thailand and the Philippines in their remaining Group B fixtures.