Indonesia's stance on Israel overshadows world soccer event

·5 min read
Protesters march during a protest in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, March 20, 2023. Hundreds of conservative Muslims have marched to the streets Monday in Indonesia's capital to protest against the Israeli team's participation in the FIFA World Cup Under-20 in Indonesia.(AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia could lose its chance to host a global youth soccer tournament, and its chance to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, after refusing to welcome a team from Israel.

FIFA canceled an important preparatory step after regional governors and protesters demanded Israel's team be excluded, and the tournament, planned for May 20-June 11, appears to be on hold.

The official draw for group assignments in the Under-20 World Cup, was supposed to take place in Bali Friday, but FIFA canceled the event after the island's governor, Wayan Koster, called for a ban on the Israeli team playing there.

The Israeli team, which will participate in the Under-20 world tournament for the first time, had been expected to be based in Bali, home to one of the six stadiums scheduled to be used for the tournament.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict is an emotional issue in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, whose 277 million people broadly support the Palestinian cause both for religious reasons and an anti-colonial tradition that dates back to the country's independence. With a presidential election coming up next year, the governing Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, widely known as PDIP, is wary of controversy.

In March 2022, an Israeli delegation attended the Interparliamentary Union in Bali, a majority Hindu province.

FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has not commented on the situation or a reported offer from Argentina to stage the event. If local authorities fail to resolve the hosting issues over Israel, Indonesia risks being suspended by FIFA and could miss the Asian qualifying rounds for the 2026 World Cup, which will begin this October. Indonesia has not made it to the World Cup since 1934, when it competed as a Dutch colony.

President Joko Widodo said Tuesday evening that his administration is trying to save the tournament. He said Indonesia had objected to Israel's participation and told citizens that the country had agreed to host before knowing Israel would qualify, but added that people should not mix “political affairs and sports affairs" and that he had sent the head of Indonesia’s national soccer association PSSI to Doha, Qatar, to meet with FIFA. He was originally reported as going to Zurich.

PSSI chair Erick Thohir has been Indonesia’s minister of state-owned enterprises since 2019. He took over as leader of the PSSI after a government investigation concluded that the national soccer association had ignored safety and security regulations ahead of a stadium crush that killed 135 people last October. He’s also a former owner of major international teams, including Italian soccer giant Inter Milan and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.

“Continue to be passionate about finding solutions to every challenge, for the sake of an increasingly global Indonesia," Thohir wrote in a Twitter post.

Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, Muhadjir Effendy, said Monday that Indonesia had proposed conditions about the presence of Israel during the tournament to FIFA, but said there was no common ground. He did not elaborate on the conditions.

“This is not merely a rejection or protest, but this is related to our country’s Constitution,” he said in response to questions about the leaders of two provinces selected as tournament venues pushing back against hosting the Israeli team.

The preamble of Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution states: “Whereas Independence is the inalienable right of all nations; therefore, colonialism must be abolished in the world as it is not in conformity with humanity and justice.”

Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo, a PDIP member who is also the frontrunner for the 2024 presidential election, joined calls for the Israeli team to be denied a place in the tournament on March 23. The secular party said its position was based on that of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, whose daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri is chair of the party.

“We know Bung Karno’s commitment to Palestine, whether in the Asia-Africa Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement or the Conference of the New Emerging Forces,” he said last week, referring to Sukarno’s popular nickname. “So, we follow his mandate.”

Indonesia's opposition to Israel has disrupted international sports for both countries in the past. Indonesia one was of three Muslim-majority countries that dropped out of qualifiers for the 1958 World Cup rather than play against Israel, allowing Israel to win the Africa and Asia group qualifying rounds without setting foot on the field. In 1962, Israel was forced to withdraw from the Asian Games after Indonesia, as host, refused to issue visas to Israeli participants.

The participation of an Israel team has some support in Indonesia.

“The rejection of the Israeli national team by some people in Indonesia, including a number of regional heads and politicians is regrettable,” said Hikmahanto Juwana, a professor of international law at the University of Indonesia, “As long as Indonesia has declared itself willing to be the host, Indonesia must take the risk not to reject any members from international event organizers.”

The Palestinian Ambassador to Indonesia has said he has no objections to the Israeli national team playing in the tournament.

Noted local soccer commentator Tommy Welly said local organizers should comply with FIFA regulations.

“There is a principle of neutrality and non-discrimination stated very clearly in both statutes of FIFA and PSSI as its member federations," Welly said. "So, Indonesia’s position must be able to adhere to those principles. Don’t mix or make friction between sport and politics.”

Israel qualified last June by reaching the semifinals of the Under-19 European Championship. The team went on to lose the final to England.

The Israeli football federation has competed in European soccer leagues since 1974, when it left the Asian Football Confederation because of boycotts from some national teams.

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