Football-loving Indonesians have been left reeling after their country was stripped of the right to host the under-20 World Cup football tournament by the sport’s governing body FIFA following local objections to an Israeli team’s participation.
Indonesia was due to host the U-20 World Cup on the island of Bali in late May, but when Israel’s youth team qualified for the tournament, staunchly pro-Palestinian Indonesia was faced with a sporting dilemma that soon became political.
However, some in Indonesia say that the controversy over the youth football World Cup has distracted from a far more pressing issue: justice for the 135 people killed in a football stadium crush in Indonesia’s East Java late last year.
Indonesia should not have even been considered a host for the U-20 World Cup after the tragedy at Kanjuruhan Stadium – one of the worst disasters in the history of football, critics say.
“The authorities have done everything they can to evade justice, both criminally and civilly, and have played around with the lives of hundreds of people,” said a father who lost two children at the stadium disaster.
“Why did anyone think it was OK for justice for the souls of the dead and their families to be ignored while the World Cup was allowed to go ahead?
Indonesia dropped as host
FIFA this week issued a statement citing “current circumstances” as the reason for removing Indonesia as the host of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023.
No further clarification was provided with FIFA adding only that an alternative host country would be announced as soon as possible.
But the move came after Indonesian politicians and conservative groups denounced the inclusion of Israel in the U-20 World Cup, with the Bali Governor Wayan Koster in March asking the country’s then-Youth and Sport Minister Zainudin Amali to ban the Israel team from attending “out of respect” for Indonesia’s diplomatic stance on Palestine.
“[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,” Koster wrote on March 14.
Australian footballer Robbie Gaspar, who spent eight years playing professional football in Indonesia, told Al Jazeera the decision to relocate the tournament was “devastating for the country and devastating for the game”.
“Indonesians are so passionate about football and I know how deeply this will be felt,” said Gaspar, who is president of the Indonesia Institute, a non-governmental organisation based in Perth, Australia.
Israel’s “colonialism” in Palestine
A senior Indonesian political staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the government’s position on Israel was based on Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution, which states that “all forms of colonialism in the world be abolished”.
Colonialism is the term Indonesia applies to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
“It is not easy to ask Indonesia to have diplomatic relations with Israel as a state,” the politician said.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo had tried to find a way to reconcile the two sides, which saw Erick Thohir, chairman of Indonesia’s Football Association (PSSI) as well as Indonesia’s minister of state-owned enterprises, fly to Zurich in Switzerland to meet with FIFA representatives in person.
“Finding a solution for Indonesian football will not come so easily; I will try my best. Please pray for us all,” Thohir had told the media before he departed for the ill-fated mission.
Thohir was elected as PSSI chairman in February just as the government sought to reform Indonesian football in the wake of the devastating Kanjuruhan Stadium crush that killed 135 spectators on October 1 in the East Java city of Malang.
On that fateful night, police fired volleys of tear gas onto the pitch and into the stands after a perceived pitch invasion at the end of a football match between bitter rival teams.
In the ensuing chaos, fans rushed to exits – some of which were locked – causing a deadly crush.
Families of the 135 victims were left outraged and disappointed in mid-March when two police officers were freed without charge and another sentenced to just 18 months in prison for their roles in the deadly incident. The outcomes followed a trial that had been plagued with allegations of intimidation.
Two match officials were jailed although an investigation team set up by Widodo had concluded that the tear gas was the main cause of the crowd surge. Indonesia’s human rights body came to the same conclusion. The use of tear gas, banned by FIFA within stadiums, was “indiscriminate” and “excessive”, the rights body said.
The father who lost two children that night in October believes that Indonesia losing the World Cup tournament was divine retribution for its mishandling of the Kanjuruhan Stadium tragedy, said
“I believe in God’s judgement and I believe that this was truly his judgement upon all of them,” the father told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity as he is in a witness protection programme while awaiting the outcome of two more cases against the police in Malang.
“Obviously the souls of those who died – and God – didn’t agree” with the tournament being held, he said.
Focus on the victims
Imam Hidayat, a lawyer representing some of the families of the Kanjuruhan victims, told Al Jazeera that Indonesia’s football federation should focus on the aftermath and ongoing judicial proceedings instead of rolling out the red carpets for the World Cup.
FIFA too should have known better, and not been “hypocritical” in choosing to host the event in Indonesia in the first place.
Accountability for the stadium deaths should still be the focus of the government and football federation, even if the current furore over the Israeli team was deemed to be “more sexy”, he added.
The PSSI did not respond to requests for comment on FIFA’s decision.
FIFA briefly made mention of the Kanjuruhan tragedy in its official statement about the World Cup decision.
“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.”
For Gaspar, the former professional footballer, FIFA’s decision has robbed Indonesia of the chance to bond over a shared appreciation of the beautiful game.
“Indonesians love their football and when the national team plays, you can really feel the whole country pull together around one common theme,” Gaspar explained.
“They had been planning for this for a long time and, from a former player’s point of view, Indonesia would have put on a fantastic World Cup,” he said.
“Unfortunately politics and sport shouldn’t mix, and now they have, with devastating consequences.”