'Those who made the noise must be held accountable'

Indonesia, booted as U-20 World Cup host, sees backlash against anti-Israel leaders

Muslim-majority state loses soccer tourney hosting rights after governors called to ban Israel; Indonesians inundate Instagram page of presidential candidate with negative comments

Motorists commute past a poster for the Indonesia 2023 FIFA Under-20 World Cup football tournament in Jakarta on March 30, 2023 (BAY ISMOYO / AFP)
Motorists commute past a poster for the Indonesia 2023 FIFA Under-20 World Cup football tournament in Jakarta on March 30, 2023 (BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian football players, fans and pundits reacted with sadness and anger Thursday after FIFA pulled the Under-20 World Cup from the host nation weeks before it was due to kick off, following protests against Israel’s participation.

The humiliating loss came after two influential governors advocated banning Israel from the competition, with many on Thursday speaking out against the anti-Israel policies.

Indonesia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations, and support for the Palestinian cause in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation runs high, fueling local opposition to hosting the Israeli team.

FIFA’s decision to find a new host — thereby nixing Indonesia’s automatic qualifying spot — puts the country’s most popular sport back in the doldrums and facing another bout of isolation.

Some of the archipelago nation’s football prodigies took to social media with fury and heartbreak after losing the chance to play at what FIFA bills as the “tournament of tomorrow’s superstars.”

“Energy, time, sweat, and even blood we have put in, but in a moment failed because of political reasons. Here’s our big dream that you’ve destroyed,” wrote 19-year-old striker Rabbani Tasnim.

An Indonesian FA video showed players with heads bowed and their coach in tears after receiving the news late Wednesday that FIFA would seek a new host.

“We, the players, are now affected, not just us but all footballers,” said 18-year-old striker Hokky Caraka.

On Thursday morning, flower boards for the players popped up outside the FA headquarters in central Jakarta, including one that read “do not give up on your dream.”

Indonesians inundated the Instagram page of Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo — one of the leading candidates in next year’s presidential election — with negative comments after he opposed Israel’s participation.

File: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, front right, accompanied by Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, front left, and Infrastructure and Environment Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen, rear left, inspects a polder during his visit, in Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia, Nov. 22, 2016 (AP Photo)

Bali’s governor had also joined the anti-Israel chorus and around a hundred conservative Muslim protesters held an anti-Israel rally in Jakarta this month.

‘Very painful’

But there was popular support for the tournament the country was handed in 2019, with many viewing it as a source of national pride.

Jakarta pledged to guarantee Israel’s participation despite its pro-Palestinian stance, yet opposing voices became too loud for FIFA.

“This is truly a very painful incident for the Indonesian people. Those who made the noise and made us fail… must be held accountable,” said Akmal Marhali, expert at football watchdog Save Our Soccer.

“Indonesia’s name in international sports is tarnished, this is a bitter event in our soccer history,” said Andieka Rabbani, a university student in the capital, Jakarta.

He added that Israeli delegations have been to Indonesia for sporting and diplomatic events before, including four Israelis who competed in the World Cycling Championship last month in Jakarta.

A number of members of the Israeli Parliament also attended the Interparliamentary Union conference in Bali last year were also warmly welcomed by Indonesia’s house speaker Puan Maharani, the grand-daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, and the Bali Governor Wayan Koster, who was the first to reject the Israeli youth soccer team.

An Israeli delegation also attended the COP-13 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bali in 2007 without any rejection.

“Our stance on the U-20 World Cup is too politicized, because a presidential election is coming,” Rabbani said.

Indonesian officials said losing the tournament could cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

FIFA threatened further sanctions and could exclude Indonesia from 2026 World Cup qualifiers that begin in October. It was banned for a year in 2015 over government interference.

But for Indonesia’s fervent fans, it was the loss of their first ever major football tournament that hurt the most.

“I am very disappointed because it has been my dream to watch Indonesia hosting a global football event,” said 40-year-old supporter Jarnawi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

This picture shows wreaths expressing the concern of football fans outside the office of the Indonesian football association in Jakarta on March 30, 2023 (BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

The game in the country has long been dogged by shaky infrastructure and fan violence, and is still reeling from a deadly stadium stampede last year that killed more than 130 people.

But it was the clash of politics and sport that ultimately cost it the tournament many had long hoped for.

“We are talking about youths who want to play soccer. They do not have any more interests,” said pundit Justin Lhaksana.

“Why is this issue blindly mixed with political games?”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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