Singapore: In the surrounds of Denpasar’s Taman Werdhi Budaya Art Centre, Indonesia’s big moment on the world football stage was finally due to arrive on Friday.
It was then and there, in a sacred complex featuring a Hindu temple, that the draw for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup was to be held.
While well off Broadway compared to the main men’s and women’s tournaments, the 24-team event in May and June loomed as a prime opportunity for Indonesia to start to realise its potential in a sport millions there are wildly enthusiastic about, but which has been woefully managed. It was also a chance to demonstrate its ability to host other major events that could boost its economy and attract investment.
The trophy displayed on the pitch before the final match between Ukraine and South Korea at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, in Lodz, Poland.Credit:AP
Instead, the draw was cancelled and now Indonesia’s hosting of the tournament is off, stripped by governing body FIFA after a domestic storm over the participation of the Israeli team.
The outcome is a spectacular own goal for the South-East Asian nation.
The Muslim-majority archipelago, which supports the cause of Palestine, does not have diplomatic ties with Israel despite trading with it, so the qualification of the Israeli team was always going to be a complication.
Israel’s U-20 football team.Credit:Instagramemail@example.com
However, the world’s third-largest democracy’s approaching elections next February supercharged the controversy.
Foreseeing problems with Israel playing games on Java, organisers had envisaged the team’s matches being held in mostly-Hindu Bali, one of six designated World Cup venues.
Those plans went out the window last week when Bali Governor Wayan Koster refused to welcome an Israeli team in deference to Indonesia’s foreign policy.
Koster was also reportedly worried about Bali being subjected to security threats and even another bombing as a result of the team’s presence on the island.
Bali Governor Wayan Koster refused to host the team because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East.Credit:Amilia Rosa
But the governor is a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the ruling party in Jakarta with the most number of seats in parliament, and is regarded as toeing the party line as elections draw closer.
It was a position spelt out this week by PDIP General Secretary Hasto Kristiyanto, who accused FIFA of double standards in suspending Russian teams after the invasion of Ukraine but not booting out Israel, which Indonesia has condemned for “systematic oppression” of Palestinians.
Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, who is also in the ranks of PDIP and has led opinion polls on who should be the next president, also called for Israel to be excluded from the cup altogether.
While Indonesia has long promoted a moderate form of Islam, the party did not want to be seen to be rolling out the red carpet for the Israelis less than a year before voters choose the country’s new president and vice-president and cast ballots for MPs at national, provincial and district level.
It was a stance adopted despite President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, himself a PDIP figure, pleading for sport and politics to be separated, and his son Gibran Rakabuming, the mayor of the city of Solo, Central Java, offering to stage the draw there.
“By stating their position [PDIP] attempted to get sympathy from the Islamic voters,” said Ray Rangkuti, a political observer from Indonesian political institute Lingkar Madani. “[The] reaction is beyond the prediction even by Jokowi himself … he did not predict that PDIP could go that far.”
Rangkuti also believes the party’s approach was connected to internal wrangling over who will be granted the presidential and vice-presidential spots on its 2024 ticket as much as ideology.
Whatever the case, the PDIP’s ploy has robbed Indonesians of an event their government had actively sought, planned at length for and which was expected to deliver significant economic benefit.
President Joko Widodo tried to keep the tournament out of politics.Credit:The Washington Post
It may also backfire politically. “What PDIP did was a blunder,” said Aditya Perdana from political research group Algoritma. “It’s risky because if we assume it tried to get sympathy from the Islamic groups, it will not necessarily get it. Those who are categorised as Islam hardliners are quite resistant against PDIP.”
According to Widodo, Palestine’s own ambassador to Indonesia had agreed to Israel’s involvement, understanding the rules of FIFA had to be followed. Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, with more than 50 million members, had not spoken out against it either.
Back on Bali, where tourism chiefs had anticipated hotel occupancy could reach 80 per cent during the tournament, there is much disappointment at the hosting rights being spiked.
Members of Bali’s provincial legislative assembly have criticised the governor’s rejection of the Israeli team. Questions are also being asked about whether the same stand will be taken in other instances, such as in August when Bali is due to hold the World Beach Games, at which Israeli athletes are expected to compete.
It was on the same island, just four months ago, that Widodo showcased Indonesia as an emerging global leader at the G20 summit. That image has been dented, hijacked by politics.
– with Karuni Rompies
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