Beautiful Bali has been known to disrupt the plans of many a tourist thanks to its surprisingly terrible traffic, but the Island of Gods has thrown a giant spanner into the works of Indonesia’s hosting of the men’s Under-20 World Cup. On Wednesday Fifa announced that it was taking the tournament away with a statement that made painful reading for locals. “Fifa has decided, due to the current circumstances, to remove Indonesia as the host of the Fifa U-20 World Cup 2023,” it said. Potential sanctions were mentioned.
This May and June was supposed to bring the world’s fourth-most populous country its biggest sporting event ever, by some distance. With 24 teams playing in six venues, four in Java, one in Sumatra and the other in Bali, it was billed as a chance to show a global audience that Indonesian football is not about stadium disasters or corruption but passion, colour and fascinating cultures.
Events this week put paid to that. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world and a supporter of the Palestinian cause, does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, who qualified for the tournament last year by reaching the final of the European Under-19 Championship and losing to England.
Bali is mainly Hindu and perceived as a free-spirited resort for international tourists but, on 14 March, the island’s governor, Wayan Koster, wrote to the minister of sports to protest against Israel’s participation. “[There is no] diplomatic relationship between the Indonesian government and the Israeli government … we request the Minister adopt a policy forbidding the Israeli team from competing in Bali,” read the letter. In the same week, about a hundred like-minded people marched in Jakarta.
There have been suggestions Fifa already had concerns about the readiness of the hosts, but the countdown had well and truly started. In football-speak, the emergence of the Israel issue forced the referee to make a decision. Last Sunday Fifa postponed the draw, scheduled for this Friday in Bali, an event long-awaited after the tournament had been delayed for two years by the pandemic.
The move sent shock waves through sporting circles in the archipelago. Indonesia is arguably the most passionate football nation in Asia, though it has underachieved and has not come close to the World Cup as an independent nation after appearing in the 1938 tournament as the Dutch East Indies. For years, international headlines have been more focused on corruption (the former Football Association president Nurdin Halid spent part of his tenure in prison and his departure in 2011 sparked two rival leagues, federations and national teams), political interference (which caused a Fifa suspension in 2015) and disaster (the country is still recovering from the deaths of 135 fans last October in a league game).
After qualifying with a young team for the Asian Cup for the first time in more than 15 years and reaching the semi-finals of the 2022 AFF Championship, the regional cup competition, there had been progress. The chance for the Under-20s to play at the World Cup was regarded as another step forward.
As the week started, there was growing nervousness and mention of 2019 when Malaysia lost the World Para Swimming Championships after refusing to let Israeli athletes enter. The Indonesian Football Association, known locally as PSSI, released a statement listing the consequences of losing the event, including sanctions from Fifa such as international bans, not being selected to host sporting events (only last week, leaders in Southeast Asia discussed a potential joint bid for the 2034 World Cup), global criticism and a significant financial loss.
The PSSI chairperson, Erick Thohir, the former Internazionale owner and current Oxford United co-owner, talked to Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, who promised that Israel coming would not change Indonesia’s longstanding stance on Palestine. “I hereby guarantee Israel’s participation has nothing to do with the consistency of our foreign policy position towards Palestine, because our support for Palestine is always strong and sturdy,” the president said on Tuesday. “Do not mix matters of sports and politics.”
It was too late. Thohir, also a cabinet minister, flew to Switzerland for meetings with Fifa officials but to no avail. Back home, there was criticism of Koster even before Fifa’s decision was announced. “It’s not only my stance, but the government’s also,” Bali’s governor told reporters. “As for solutions, ask the ones with authority. Enough.”
Fifa said the dates for the tournament remained unchanged. There have been reports that Peru, due to host the men’s Under-17 World Cup in November, could step in and that Argentina has offered to do so. Qatar could do the same but the northern summer may be difficult.
A decision will be made soon but it is no longer the concern of Indonesia. The tourists will still be stuck in Bali traffic this May and June and football in the country does not seem to be going anywhere either.