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Indonesia’s disastrous own-goal

Mar 31, 2023 | Tzvi Fleischer

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This week saw FIFA forced to don its referee cap and admonish and penalise Indonesia for foul play off the field. The world soccer federation cancelled Jakarta’s hosting rights for the Under 20 World Cup after controversial refusals from senior Indonesian political leaders to host an Israeli team as part of the international competition.

Despite an ostensible commitment to honour the rules of the competition, the host nation instead allowed political posturing to cost it the competition in a completely pointless way, hurting only itself. It was a disastrous own-goal for Indonesia, a soccer-mad country which was looking forward to hosting its first ever international competition in the sport. This was especially true because Jakarta has been desperately trying to repair its battered reputation after last October’s horrific stadium tragedy during a soccer match in East Java, in which 135 people were crushed to death.

Hosting rights have now been granted to Argentina by FIFA – bringing with them not just a reputational boost and much needed tourist dollars, but a major bonus for Argentinian soccer fans. The team of the host nation gets to participate in the competition, even if it did not qualify based on its past record – and neither Indonesia’s nor Argentina’s Under 20 team did. This means that the Argentinian team will now take part in the competition, and the Indonesian one, which was scheduled to be a part of the competition when it was going to occur in Indonesia, will miss out – to the detriment of the long-term development of Indonesian soccer overall.

Self-destructive Posturing

The story of FIFA’s decision to remove the hosting rights from Indonesia for the Under 20 World Cup, due to the belligerent attitude of key Indonesian authorities towards Israelis, is a tale of hubris and self-destructive posturing snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Moreover, this self-destructive posturing did not help Palestinians in any way, nor harm Israel. Its only effect was to harm the Indonesian people themselves.

Indonesia was awarded the rights to the tournament back in 2019, no doubt something that brought joy to this football-mad country. At that time, it was not known which teams would be qualifying and competing. But, to the surprise of many, Israel’s team qualified for the first time ever after making it to the semi-finals of last year’s Under-19 European Championship. This represented a problem for Indonesia’s efforts to market itself as a football mecca in Southeast Asia, because the Muslim-majority country has no relations with Israel and insists that it is unashamedly pro-Palestinian – though it does consistently support a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After some earlier rumblings, things came to a head last week on March 22, when conservative Muslim protestors took to the streets of Jakarta to protest Israel’s planned presence for the ceremony to create the draw for the tournament, originally scheduled for March 31 in Bali. Bali Governor Wayan Koster then stated that he would refuse to host the Israeli team on the Hindu-majority island, even though this is what the organisers had planned to do. The Governor cited security concerns as well as Indonesia’s foreign policy of having no relations with Israel and supporting Palestinian aspirations..

The debate escalated even further when Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, a front runner for next year’s presidential elections, also called for Israel to be excluded.

In a bid to save the tournament, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo released a statement on March 28, saying, “Don’t mix sports with politics,” and “I hereby guarantee Israel’s participation has nothing to do with the consistency of our foreign policy position toward Palestine, because our support for Palestine is always strong and sturdy.”

He then sent the Soccer Association of Indonesia (PSSI) chief, Erick Thohir, to meet with FIFA boss Gianni Infantino in Doha, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the event.

But following these talks, FIFA announced a decision “due to the current circumstances, to remove Indonesia as the host of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023.” On March 30, FIFA President Gianni Infantino stated, “Argentina’s candidacy is the only one that has been presented and with guarantees of the government,” strongly suggesting Argentina will be the new host.

Under the table relations ignored

What is particularly bizarre about the whole episode is that, while it is true that Indonesia has never had diplomatic relations with Israel, it is an open secret that there have been fairly extensive covert economic, security and political relationships between the two countries for more than two decades.

Soon after his election in 1999, former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, the first democratically-elected president of Indonesia, tried to substantially change Jakarta’s policy towards Israel, planning to move towards eventual official diplomatic relations by first establishing direct trade ties.

That has not yet happened but today trade relations are estimated to be valued at more than US$500 million per year.

Israeli leaders have also frequently met with Indonesian counterparts. Then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Indonesia in 1993. In 2005, then Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom held a discreet meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirajuda during a UN General Assembly summit in New York.  In 2013, then Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett attended a conference in Bali and met Indonesian officials. Current Israeli PM Netanyahu has also met with Indonesian officials and leaders on more than one occasion.

Moreover, as recently as March of last year, two Israeli member of the Knesset, Avi Dichter (Likud) and Nira Shpak (Yesh Atid), led an Israeli delegation to an International Parliamentary Union conference in Bali.

Tourism links are also considerable. Before COVID, in excess of 30,000 Indonesians visited Israel per year – most of them Christian pilgrims. Smaller numbers of Israelis also enter Indonesia, despite difficult visa requirements – many of them holidaying in Bali.

So an Israeli team visiting Indonesia to play in an international tournament, and being based in Bali, would hardly have required a major shift in policy for Indonesia.

Paying the price of politics

It seems pretty clear that the interventions of Governors Koster and Pranowo, which led to the tournament being moved, were thoroughly about politics. With national elections scheduled for next year, PSI-P is hoping to obtain a sizeable portion of the vote from conservative Muslim voters who have been taught supporting “Palestine” by rejecting anything to do with Israel is a religious imperative. This is despite the fact that the actual public protests organised by radical Muslim groups opposing Israeli participation in the tournament were quite small.

Electoral political considerations may also help explain why President Jokowi appears to have made little effort to over-rule or push back harder against the two governors.

Yet the price of this apparent political grandstanding is likely to be high.

Rather than basking in the glory of hosting its first major international football tournament, Indonesia will now have to deal with the ignominy of having the hosting rights ripped away from it.

And it’s not just the humiliation with which it will have to contend. There is also the possible consequence of sanctions being imposed on Indonesian soccer, as FIFA has indicated.

The loss of the tournament could cost Indonesia hundreds of millions of dollars in a much needed boost to the economy, but it could also potentially harm the Indonesian football teams’ chances of participating in other FIFA tournaments.

As Indonesian striker, Rabbani Tasnim Siddiq said on Instagram about the outcome caused by the politicians, “We sacrificed our time, thoughts, sweat and even blood. But it suddenly failed due to your political reasons.”

Or as the assistant coach for Indonesia national under-19 football team  Nova Arianto said of the affair, “We have buried the dreams of our own children.”

Abraham Accords hopes apparently dimming

An additional implication of the whole episode is the dimming of hopes expressed over recent years that Indonesia could be one of the next countries to join the Abraham Accords normalising relations between Israel and various Arab and Muslim states.

Reports from both Washington and Jerusalem have repeatedly suggested that senior officials think normalisation between Israel and Indonesia is possible or even likely in the near future. But if, because of internal politics, Indonesia would rather lose hosting rights to a major soccer tournament than host an Israeli team, any Indonesian leader being able to execute such a shift in policy looks pretty unlikely, at least for the time being.

This is also costly for the Indonesian people.

Over the past few years, the Abraham Accords have renewed a sense of hope that Israel and Muslim nations could, by cooperating and working together on issues of mutual interest, achieve a brighter future of peace and prosperity for all the region’s peoples. It also showed that even countries with strong pro-Palestinian stances, like Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco, could normalise relations with Israel, achieve great benefits through trade and cooperation – economically, technologically and in defence terms – while still supporting Palestinian aspirations. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that normalisation enables them to support these aspirations more effectively.

Indeed, in a speech to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in June 2020, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi seemed to recognise as much, calling for OIC states with relations with Israel to use those relations to help push Palestinian priorities.

Yet hopes that Indonesians could both benefit from a relationship with Israel, and Jakarta could use such a relationship to play a bigger role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, also now appear to be more distant. This appears to be yet another way in which Indonesians became the losers in the wake of their nation’s spectacular own-goal with respect to the Under 20 Soccer World Cup.

(Image: Shutterstock, lumyai l sweet)

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