Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on 2023-03-30
Players, fans and pundits expressed anger and frustration as Indonesia’s dream of hosting the FIFA U-20 World Cup evaporated after international football’s governing body stripped the country of hosting rights amid a controversy over Israel’s participation.
FIFA’s announcement on Wednesday that it was removing Indonesia as host of the Under-20 tournament “due to the current circumstances” dealt a second big blow to the sport in Indonesia after 135 people died in a post-match stampede at a football stadium in East Java six months ago.
“We hope this will be a lesson for the future, that if we get to host such an event, we should do our best,” Hokky Caraka, a striker for the Indonesian Under-20 national team, said in a video posted on the official YouTube channel of the Football Association of Indonesia. (PSSI).
“You don’t know how hard we worked, so please don’t express your opinion recklessly, because we are the ones who suffer the consequences.”
The tournament would have been a rare opportunity to showcase the team’s talents on home soil, Hokky said.
Before FIFA delivered its gut kick to Indonesian lovers and players of the Beautiful Game, some officials and groups here had aired their opposition to an Israeli team playing in the tournament, which was to take place from May 20 to June 11. The critics cited the Jewish State’s treatment of Palestinians and its lack of diplomatic relations with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Some conservative Islamic groups had also staged protests against Israeli participation in the tournament.
FIFA’s 154-word statement did not explain what it meant by “current circumstances” and it did not explicitly cite the Israel issue as the reason for revoking Indonesia’s rights to host the prestigious tournament. Based in Zurich, the International Federation of Football Associations had previously postponed the draw for the group stage, which was scheduled to take place in Bali on March 31.
“FIFA would like to underline that despite this decision, it remains committed to actively assisting the PSSI, in close cooperation and with the support of the government of President Widodo, in the transformation process of Indonesian football following the tragedy that occurred in October 2022,” the statement said, referring to the tragic turn of events at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo issued a statement on Thursday about the FIFA decision.
“Last night I received a report from the chairman of the PSSI that FIFA had decided to cancel the U-20 World Cup in Indonesia. Of course we must respect and accept that decision,” Jokowi said.
“As a great nation we must look forward, not backward. Make this a valuable lesson for all of us, for Indonesian national football.”
The president said he asked PSSI Chairman Erick Thohir “to continue to make maximum efforts so that Indonesian football does not receive sanctions and will be given opportunities to host other international events.”
Acting Sports Minister Muhadjir Effendi said everyone was sad and disappointed with Wednesday’s decision.
“FIFA has full authority on this matter. Fans should not be too sad and disappointed because there is still a lot of work and programs to improve Indonesian football in the future,” he said. “Let’s look to the future.”
In 2019, Indonesia won the bid to host the Under-20 World Cup, a quadrennial tournament, by beating out Brazil and Peru. It had planned to stage the matches in six cities, including Gianyar in Bali, as well as in Jakarta and Solo.
But the preparations were marred by political and public resistance to the involvement of the Israelis, regarded as a surprise qualifier for the tournament.
Earlier this month, Bali Gov. I Wayan Koster voiced his objection to hosting Israel in his Hindu-majority province. Last week, Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo issued a similar statement, saying he supported the tournament but not Israel’s participation.
“Thank you, sirs, my parents won’t get to tell their friends that their son made them proud for playing at the World Cup,” another Indonesia U-20 player, Arkhan Fikri, wrote ironically on Instagram.
“Thank you for burying and destroying our big dreams.”
One fan, Gerry Eka Asmara, said the cancellation could have far-reaching implications not only for Indonesian football but also for other sports.
“Indonesia will struggle to regain trust in the future to host international sporting events and may face sanctions and exclusion from international football,” he told BenarNews.
“Perhaps we are not yet ready. Hopefully, this event serves as a lesson for all parties, not just in football but in all aspects,” Gerry added.
Hokky, the Indonesia U20 forward, said he hoped Indonesia would not face any sanctions from FIFA. He said such sanctions could jeopardize the future of Indonesian football.
Indonesia has a history of being suspended by FIFA for government interference in football affairs. The most recent ban lasted from 2015 to 2016 and prevented Indonesian teams and officials from taking part in any international competitions.
FIFA has not announced a new host for this year’s Under-20 World Cup yet.
On Tuesday, Jokowi said Indonesia was determined to host the tournament, adding that Israel’s participation would not affect Jakarta’s support for Palestinians.
He also said he was sending Erick, the PSSI chairman, to meet with FIFA President Gianni Infantino to find a solution.
Erick, a former owner of Major League Soccer club D.C. United and Italian Serie A side Inter Milan, said he had tried to persuade Infantino to keep Indonesia as the host.
“I did the best that I could. After delivering a letter from President Jokowi, and speaking at length with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, we must accept FIFA’s decision to cancel the event that we all look forward to,” Erick said in a statement.
Football analysts and activists said Indonesia would suffer huge losses from FIFA’s decision, not only in terms of material costs for renovating stadiums, but also in terms of international reputation and credibility.
They also said Indonesia had let down its young football players who had dreamed of playing in the World Cup.
The U-20 competition is not as glamorous or well known as the adult-level World Cup, but the sport’s international superstars, including Argentina’s Lionel Messi, have climbed the ranks of professional football via FIFA’s Under-20 tournament.
“This is a painful event for Indonesia, where political interests have sacrificed the interests of many people,” said Akmal Marhali, coordinator of Save Our Soccer (SOS), a group that advocates better football governance in Indonesia.
Not only has Indonesia spent a lot of money on renovating the stadiums that were prepared, but it could also lose the trust of the international community to be able to host global sporting events in the future, said Tommy Welly, a football pundit.
“The biggest loss is actually less tangible: Our chance to accelerate our ability at the international level,” Tommy told BenarNews.
“Our young players’ dreams are shattered, dreams that were in front of their eyes then vanished,” Tommy said.
This report has been updated to include comments from Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.