Jakarta – Indonesia will never be a great soccer nation because our government and politicians say so. We could be one, and there are strong aspirations among the people to see Indonesia alongside the world's best like Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy. We are not short of talent, not with a population of 280 million people, the world's fourth most populous country.
The way we lost, or squandered is a more apt term, the right to host the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup tournament less than two months before kickoff shows that the desire to become a great soccer nation must make way for other matters politicians decide are far more important.
The U-20 World Cup would have gone ahead despite objections from some quarters to the Israeli participation but FIFA last week decided to move the event from Indonesia after senior politicians in the country lent their voice to the opposition.
When governors I Wayan Koster of Bali and Ganjar Pranowo of Central Java openly stated their objection to hosting the Israeli national team, they turned the tournament into political soccer. Both are members of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and Ganjar is one of the frontrunners for the 2024 presidential election.
Indonesia does not have diplomatic ties with Israel and has been a staunch supporter of an independent Palestinian homeland. This fact has been invoked by those who opposed Israeli participation in the tournament. But they would be naive to think that FIFA would exclude Israel, an early qualifier, from the tournament to accommodate their concerns.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo had taken an active part in lobbying FIFA for the right to host the tournament. He even personally intervened after a deadly stampede in a soccer match in East Java in October to guarantee FIFA that Indonesia would improve its stadiums to meet international safety standards on time. It is incomprehensible how he had let the situation get out of control since he is a member of the PDI-P. If he had shared his aspirations for Indonesia to be a great soccer nation, he could have saved the tournament.
Now the Soccer Association of Indonesia (PSSI) says Indonesia must brace for stiff sanctions for forcing FIFA to switch the tournament to another country at the last minute. We have been down that road before, and that was painful.
In 2015, FIFA suspended Indonesia's membership over perceived government interventions in the PSSI. Indonesia was barred from taking part in all events under the auspices of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and all national league championships were canceled. The suspension was just over a year, but it left lasting damage to the nation's soccer world.
Indonesia had crawled back in its FIFA ranking from 179th in 2015 to 151st last year, still far from its historic best ranking of 76th. After this year's U-20 World Cup debacle and now possible FIFA sanctions, we can expect to see our ranking fall again. We are barely in the top five among 11 Southeast Asian countries.
Sukarno may be turning in his grave because his name was invoked by Ganjar and Koster in opposing Israel's presence in the tournament, recalling the Indonesian first president's strong support for the Palestinian rights to independence in the 1950s.
Circumstances have changed in the last 70 years and so has Indonesia. Palestine remains under Israeli occupation, but as President Jokowi said, hosting the U-20 tournament with Israeli participation does not mean Indonesia is supporting the Palestinian people any less.
But Indonesia today is a middle-income country with aspirations to play a bigger role in the world on all fronts, politics, economics, art, culture, and yes, in sports including soccer. Sukarno, known for his grand visions for Indonesia, would approve of this if he were alive.
Alas, as much as the Indonesian people aspire to become a great soccer nation, these dreams will remain elusive for as long as our politicians say so.