Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – Indonesia lost its right to host the soccer U-20 World Cup tournament less than two months before kick-off because of a domestic controversy about the participation of Israel, with which it is has no diplomatic ties.
FIFA, the soccer governing body, announced its decision on Wednesday, ignoring last-minute lobbying by the government of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to salvage the event. In the announcement on its website, FIFA cited "current circumstances" without making any direct references to the boiling controversy in Indonesia about Israel taking part.
The tournament, involving 24 countries, will now be moved elsewhere, but the dates May 20-June 11 will likely remain. Argentina, winner of last year's World Cup tournament, is in contention to take over, as are Peru and Brazil, both of which lost their bid to host the event to Indonesia in 2019.
Besides losing the right to automatic participation in the tournament as the host nation, Indonesia now faces sanctions from FIFA, including the possibility of being banned from participating at FIFA-sanctioned events.
This is a big slap in the face for President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who had given his personal attention to ensure Indonesia succeeded in hosting the event. Indonesia already submitted bids to host the World Cup and the Olympics in the 2030s, but this latest episode will likely raise questions about its credentials to host major international events.
The controversy only surfaced in the last two weeks, although Indonesia had known of Israel's participation as far back as June when the Jewish state became one of the early qualifiers for the U-20 tournament. The government then guaranteed FIFA Israel could participate in the event and that its national team and supporters would be given adequate security protections.
Opposition to Israel's participation had been minimal and manageable, but changed when I Wayan Koster, the governor of Bali, which houses one of the six soccer stadiums designated for the tournament, rejected the presence of the Israeli national team in Bali. The predominantly Hindu province had been named as the location to accommodate the Israeli team.
Soon after, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo lent his voice, raising the political stakes given the fact that he is a leading contender for the presidential election in 2024. It had less to do with the fact that Surakarta, one of the host cities, is located in the province. The city mayor, Gibran Rakabuming, who is also President Jokowi's son, said he had an objection. Ganjar said the nation needed to honor the wishes of first president Sukarno, who had tirelessly supported the independence of Palestine.
Indonesia saw the first of signs of trouble last week when FIFA canceled the tournament's draw in Bali. Amid growing speculations that Indonesia could also lose hosting rights, President Jokowi dispatched Erick Thohir, the minister of state enterprises and chair of the Indonesian Soccer Association (PSSI), to meet with FIFA officials to give his assurance the Israeli team would be welcomed and protected. But the decision on Wednesday was made before Erick had the chance to meet with FIFA officials.
On Tuesday night, President Jokowi in a nationally televised speech said the presence of the Israeli team in Indonesia would not change the country's support for an independent Palestine state. He also appealed to the nation not to mix sports and politics.
Even Palestinian Ambassador to Indonesia Zuhair Al Shun told Indonesian media he had no objection to Israelis taking part in the tournament.
Preparations for the tournament had been going well. Indonesia invested heavily in ensuring all six stadiums meet international standards. A deadly stampede in a stadium in the East Java city of Malang in October raised questions about the safety of the six facilities for the U-20 tournament. Indonesia brought in FIFA inspectors and consultants to help make sure they all meet the standards.
As Indonesia deals with the blow and waits for stiff FIFA sanctions, many now question what motivated Koster and Ganjar to come out so strongly at this late stage against Israeli participation. Both governors are now the target of online bullying, singled out by netizens as the two most-responsible for the scandal and for what this will mean for the future of Indonesian soccer.
Koster since backtracked on his statement, saying he had been ordered to speak out by the central government, but he did not give any names.
It is unclear how this will impact Ganjar's electoral standing. While he may lose a lot of support for his 2024 presidential bid particularly from soccer fans, he could also win new converts, particularly among conservative Muslim voters.
In the absence of any other credible explanation, many speculate Koster and Ganjar were acting upon instructions from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chair Megawati Soekarnoputri, who is the daughter of Sukarno.
Megawati had a meeting with Jokowi, who is also a PDI-P member, early in March to discuss the party's nomination for the presidential 2024 election. The two seems to have had a falling-out after this meeting and the PDI-P opposition to the participation of Israel in the U-20 tournament began immediately after, led by Governors Koster and Ganjar.
Besides the FIFA sanction, now the nation must brace itself for the political fallout from this episode.
What we've heard
Several sources from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) said that the rejection of Israel was an instruction from the party's chairwoman, Megawati Soekarnoputri. She rejected Israel for ideological reasons: Her father, Sukarno, was a staunch defender of the Palestinian people's right to independence.
Megawati had previously summoned the State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir before he became PSSI chairman. Megawati conveyed her rejection of the Israeli national team's visit to Indonesia and asked Erick to lobby FIFA. The order was conveyed when Erick attended the FIFA Congress in Rwanda in mid-March. "Exploration began there," said a source close to Erick.
Megawati also summoned a senior PDI-P politician, asking him to communicate with Erick and the interim Youth and Sports Minister Muhadjir Effendy regarding the issue.
In addition to ideological reasons, PDI-P is considering the survey in rejecting Israel and the impact of the rejection of the Israeli national team on the party's electability. One of the references is the results of the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, which stated that 71 percent of respondents considered Israel to be at fault in the conflict with Palestine.
Megawati was also said to have lobbied Jokowi directly about Israel. This was conveyed by Megawati during a lunch meeting with Pramono Anung and Hasto Kristiyanto at the State Palace on March 18. "Jokowi doesn't want to step back," said one source.
[This content is provided by Tenggara Strategics in collaboration with The Jakarta Post to serve the latest comprehensive and reliable analysis on Indonesia's political and business landscape.]