May 2023


Cancellation shocks Indonesians

In attempting to ban the Israeli team from participating in the Under-20 World Cup, Indonesia has scored a costly own goal. Richard Gregson reports

Dismay, anger and confusion. These were the reactions in Indonesia to the cancellation of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup which the country was due to proudly host in May and June of this year. Dismay and anger because Indonesia is a country whose people are passionate about football; surveys have shown that in this South-East Asian country, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, over 78 per cent of people are soccer fans –competing possibly only with Latin America in their love of the game.

And confusion too because the soccer-loving masses are not sure why they have been deprived of the opportunity of witnessing the world’s best up and coming teams in action at stadiums located in six cities across the country. Indonesian footballers, who have so far failed to make a mark in international soccer, have lost an important opportunity to hone their skills and attract greater support from government and businesses now the tournament is no longer being held in their country.

Playing an unhelpful blame game, the country’s political elite– both the liberal majority and the Islamic radicals whose influence has been growing over the years –are still counting the cost of the U-turn in which the beautiful archipelago and its 277 million people have lost billions of dollars. That’s without even mentioning the international goodwill Indonesia would have garnered, having already been host to the prestigious G-20 last year and the ASEAN Summits to be held later this year. Ironically, as Indonesia assumes ASEAN chairmanship with the theme ASEAN Matter: Epicentrum of Growth, the country’s GDP is estimated to take a hit of around 3.18 trillion rupiah ($212.36 million) due to the cancellation of the U-20 World Cup.

While the post-haste decision by FIFA to strip Indonesia of the honour of hosting the Under-20 World Cup is itself controversial, Indonesian politicians are to blame for whipping up the issue of banning Israel’s participation in the World Cup – all in the name of their supposed solidarity with the Palestinian cause; indeed, being a runner-up in the 2022 European U-19 Championship, Israel automatically qualified for a place in the 24-nations U-20 World Cup.

Israeli minister of Finance Bezalel Smotirch holds a press conference about the state bought in Jerusalem
French government give Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (pictured) the cold shoulder

True, there have been concerns over Israel’s military actions against Palestinians, but the U-20 World Cup controversy has more to do with Indonesian politicians settling scores among themselves, rather than concern for the Palestinians’ plight. How come nobody raised a red flag when Israeli badminton player Misha Zilberman participated in the World Championships in Jakarta in 2015 or for that matter when cyclist Mikhail Yakovlev represented Israel in an international competition in Jakarta in February of this year? In fact in 2022, Yakovlev switched allegiance from Russia to Israel, in order to race in international competitions, after Russia was banned from taking part following its invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, when an Israeli delegation also participated in the Inter-Parliamentary Union meetings in Bali in 2022, nobody voiced any concerns.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s defiant stance during his visit to France has only served to harden anti-Israeli attitudes

The country, like many others, does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. In 1962 Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, refused to host Israeli athletes at the Asian Games in Jakarta. In 2006, Indonesia refused to play against Israel in the women’s tennis competition, then known as the Federation Cup and in 1972, refused to play against Israel’s national football team during the men’s qualifying round of the Munich Summer Olympics. Recently, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is reported to have tried to persuade Jakarta to normalise ties with Tel Aviv, citing the rapprochement between Israel and Arab states.

However, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s defiant stance during his visit to France, where he declared that ‘there is no such thing as a Palestinian people’, has only served to harden anti-Israeli attitudes. Indonesia’s foreign ministry strongly condemned Smotrich’s remarks, reiterating that ‘Indonesia continues to consistently support the struggle of the Palestinian people’. The ministry also went on to confirm that Israel’s participation in the U-20 World Cup would not ‘change Indonesia’s stance on the Palestine conflict’.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

FIFA’s kneejerk reaction to strip Indonesia’s right to host the tournament is questionable too

But putting statements aside, Indonesian politics is more often than not a dirty affair with all shades of politicians vying for power. The omnibus coalition governments are a product of different parties and factions fighting for the best possible deal through which to share the spoils of power. Corruption is rife and so is factional infighting and political intrigues. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo became a victim of the infighting within the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) when leaders of his own party, Bali Governor I Wayan Koster and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo both issued statements that the Israeli team should be banned from playing in the country.

In truth, there are two aspects to this controversy: one, the PDI-P leadership are out to appease the radical section of voters with an eye on the 2024 presidential elections. Indeed, Ganjar has been shown to be a frontrunner in the polls, enjoying a comfortable lead over Defence Minister, Prabowo Subianto, and former Jakarta Governor, Anies Baswedan, who is also in the race. The PDI-P have not performed well in either of the regions where Islamists hold sway and while Widodo cannot fight a third term, he would like to continue to have political influence after he retires– he is still popular among the masses and that is another element which comes into play.

Significantly, Widodo’s relationship with the former president and matriarch of Indonesian politics, PDI-P chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri– Sukarno’s daughter–has not been cordial, because, much to Megawati’s annoyance, the President had been making most decisions independently. According to the Indonesian magazine Tempo, she secretly ordered party members, including Ganjar and Koster, to ban the Israeli soccer team’s participation in the U-20 tournament. It was only after calls for a boycott by the PDI-P leaders, that a small group of Islamists took to the streets in Jakarta to protest against the Israeli soccer team’s participation and burned the Israeli flag. The Islamic Ulema Council, Indonesia’s top body of Islamic scholars, also issued a statement that all Islamic groups in the country, including the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, were opposed to Israel playing in the World Cup.

FIFA U-20 trophy
FIFA stands accused of hypocrisy

The cancellation of the tournament is a big setback for the president. The games would have been a boon for local tourism and industry and would have helped the country’s stagnating economy to recover from the adverse impact of the pandemic. Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno has claimed that industry stands to lose business to the tune of US$247 million.

A study conducted by the Institute for Economic and Social Research at Universitas Indonesia (LPEM UI) estimates that more than 44,000 jobs would have been created and that small and medium businesses, such as merchandise, food and beverage vendors, could have earned 1 billion rupiah ($67,000) a day during the 22 days of the tournament.

Moreover, the championships would have helped the country to overcome the bad publicity it received following the death of 135 people in a stampede, caused by the police’s inept handling of an unruly crowd at a football stadium in East Java.

FIFA’s kneejerk reaction to strip Indonesia’s right to host the tournament is questionable too. It vaguely cited ‘current circumstances’ in the country as a reason for the sudden decision even though President Joko Widodo had vehemently denounced the politicization of sport and gave an assurance that all measures would be taken to ensure the safety of  players and officials. As if the cancellation were not enough, FIFA has also gone ahead and frozen funding to Indonesia’s national soccer association.

The fallout from FIFA’s actions could snowball further with Indonesia being banned from hosting future international FIFA tournaments. PDI (P) General Secretary, Hasto Kristiyanto, has accused FIFA of applying a ‘double standard’ by allowing Israel, despite its gross human rights violations, to compete in its tournaments while banning Russia from playing at the 2022 World Cup following its invasion of Ukraine.

Ultimately, the majority of Indonesians were not concerned whether Israel took part or not, and were simply looking forward to the championship kicking off. Will these same people teach the self-serving politicians, responsible for Indonesia’s biggest soccer fiasco, a lesson by handing them a massive defeat in the 2024 elections?

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada

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