Indonesia still hopes to host U-20 World Cup after protests over hosting Israel

President announces talks with FIFA following outcry against Jewish state’s participation in soccer event in world’s most populous Muslim nation

Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrives at the EU-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels on December 14, 2022. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrives at the EU-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels on December 14, 2022. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Tuesday he was sending the country’s soccer association chief for talks with FIFA about its hosting of the Under-20 World Cup, after the draw was nixed following protests over Israel’s participation.

The two countries 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.

Widodo said he had dispatched Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) head and minister for state-owned enterprises Erick Thohir as uncertainty swirled over the competition’s location.

“I have sent PSSI chief Erick Thohir to meet with the FIFA team to look for the best solution,” Widodo said in a live-streamed speech.

He did not specify when Thohir — a former chairman of Inter Milan — would fly or which FIFA officials he would meet.

The meeting will take place in Qatari capital Doha, PSSI official Eko Rahmanto told AFP Wednesday. Indonesian officials initially said he would meet with FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, where the world soccer governing body is headquartered.

Fixtures for the 24-nation tournament beginning in May were due to be chosen on Friday in Bali, but FIFA canceled the event without offering a reason or setting a new date.

Indonesian officials said Bali’s governor calling for Israel to be thrown out of the cup because of its policies towards the Palestinians was likely behind the draw’s cancelation.

Protesters march during a protest against Israel’s participation in the FIFA World Cup Under-20s, Jakarta, Indonesia, March 20, 2023. (AP/Achmad Ibrahim)

Around a hundred conservative Muslim demonstrators also marched in the capital Jakarta this month to protest Israel’s involvement.

FIFA is yet to comment on the tournament and where it will be held after the draw was nixed.

The Indonesian president said sport and politics should not clash after the calls for Israel to be removed from the tournament.

“I guarantee the participation of Israel has nothing to do with the consistency of our foreign policy to Palestine. Because our support to Palestine is always strong and firm. So don’t mix sports with politics,” he said in the video.

Widodo’s intervention came as fears grew that Indonesia could face sanctions and isolation on the global soccer stage if it could not guarantee Israel’s participation.

The country would also be holding the tournament under the cloud of one of the worst stadium disasters in the sport’s history after 135 people died in an East Java stadium stampede in October.

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