How Anti-Israel Protests Cost Indonesia a FIFA Soccer Championship
When a stampede at a soccer stadium in Indonesia killed 135 people last year, it became one of the worst disasters in the sport’s history, leaving fans and players traumatized.
Indonesian officials saw the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, scheduled to be held in Indonesia from May 20 to June 11, as an opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by the disaster and to repair the country’s reputation among soccer fans.
Instead, Indonesia was stripped of its championship hosting duties by FIFA on Wednesday amid protests over Israel’s participation, a blow to the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation as it seeks to burnish its influence on the global stage.
Israel’s team qualified for the tournament for the first time this year, a result that proved to be fraught in Indonesia, which has longstanding sympathies for Palestinians.
The dispute comes at a time when Indonesia’s conservative Muslims have become more outspoken and many officials are worried about making a wrong move ahead of next year’s presidential election. Supporting Palestinians remains hugely popular in the country.
In a viral video, veteran Indonesian journalist Najwa Shihab denounced fellow Indonesians who “talk loudly about the sufferings of the Palestinians,” but have chosen to close their eyes to the injustice suffered by the victims of last year’s soccer stadium tragedy.
Preparations for the tournament were thrown into disarray when Wayan Koster, the governor of Bali, wrote to Indonesia’s sports ministry earlier this month asking the agency to bar Israel from playing in his province.
The tournament’s draw had been scheduled to be held on the island this week. When FIFA postponed it after learning of Mr. Koster’s request, it sparked a crisis for the Indonesian government.
Conservative Muslim protesters marched on Monday in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, carrying signs and chanting slogans objecting to Israel’s participation. On Tuesday, President Joko Widodo addressed the nation, telling Indonesians that the government had always been “consistent and firm in fighting for and supporting the independence of a Palestinian nation and supporting the achievement of a two-state solution.”
Mr. Joko said that Indonesia had gone through a long bidding process to host the championship, and that the country’s ultimate selection was “an honor for the Indonesian people.” When the country was named host, Indonesia did not know which teams would participate. Israel only qualified in July 2022.
Israel’s participation “has nothing to do with the consistency of our foreign-policy position toward Palestine, because our support for Palestine has always been solid and strong,” Mr. Joko said on Tuesday. He added that the public should “not mix sports and politics.”
Arya Sinulingga, a member of the executive committee of P.S.S.I., Indonesia’s soccer association, told reporters on Sunday that Mr. Koster’s request violated a guarantee that the country had made to FIFA as the host of the tournament, and said that he was concerned about the damage the decision would have on Indonesian soccer.
Mr. Joko sent the chairman of Indonesia’s soccer association, Erick Thohir, to meet with FIFA to discuss the dispute in Qatar earlier this week. While he was there, national opposition continued to build, especially within the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the political party of both Mr. Joko and Mr. Koster.
Last Friday, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, another party member who is widely considered to be a presidential contender, said he, too, supported efforts to ban Israel from the tournament. Mr. Ganjar emphasized that backing an independent Palestine has been a cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy for decades.
On Wednesday, the party’s secretary-general, Hasto Kristiyanto, said in a statement that the country should “not compromise our ideology for the sake of the market.”
After the meeting with Mr. Erick failed to resolve the dispute on Wednesday, FIFA said in a statement that Indonesia would not host the event “due to the current circumstances.” FIFA said the dates of the tournament would remain unchanged and that it would announce a new host “as soon as possible.”
Indonesia could face further penalties in the weeks ahead, including a possible ban from qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. Mr. Erick said that he had “tried his best” to resolve the situation and that the country had to accept FIFA’s decision. “I ask all soccer lovers to keep their heads held high over this tough decision by FIFA,” he said in a statement.
Indonesia has spent close to $12 million renovating five stadiums and 20 practice fields in preparation for the championship. DJs and musicians have teamed up on an official soundtrack. By Thursday morning, Nova Rianto, a visibly emotional assistant coach with Indonesia’s under-20 team, posted a video on Instagram showing players sniffling as he tried to console them.
For Indonesian soccer fans, many of whom care much more about soccer than politics, the sudden announcement has been devastating. In a Thursday editorial in the Jakarta Post, the newspaper said the country’s “international credibility was now at stake” and that statements from Mr. Koster and Mr. Ganjar were “a blatant attempt to politicize sports.”
“We have forfeited a golden opportunity to advance the sport,” the newspaper wrote.
Rabbani Tasnim, a player for Indonesia’s under-20 national team, left a comment on Mr. Ganjar’s Instagram: “Thank you, sir, for burying and destroying our big dream to play in the World Cup in front of our own people.”
Hosting the under-20 championships was a rare chance for Indonesia to play on the world stage. Although the team did not qualify for the tournament, as the host country, it would have been allowed to participate.
Twenty-four countries are set to participate in the under-20 championship this year, including the United States. The tournament is an important steppingstone for stars of the future; Lionel Messi was named the most valuable player of the 2005 event, matching the 1979 award won by midfielder Diego Maradona.
The under-20 championships, last held in 2019, is normally played every two years. But the 2021 event — also set to be held in Indonesia — was canceled because of the pandemic, and rescheduled for this year.
Muktita Suhartono and Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting.