JAKARTA – Indonesian soccer players and fans reacted with tears and outrage after the country was stripped of hosting rights for the Under-20 World Cup only eight weeks before the start of the tournament amid political turmoil over Israel’s participation, leaving Indonesian soccer at risk of further sanctions.
The youth soccer event was expected to be a rare turn on the global soccer stage for a country that hasn't been to the World Cup since winning independence. But it was officially canceled Wednesday after two regional governors said they would not allow an Israeli team to play in their territories.
FIFA said Indonesia was removed from staging the 24-team tournament scheduled to start on May 20 “due to the current circumstances,” without specifying details.
In an emotional meeting with Indonesian youth players and their coach in Jakarta on Thursday, Zainudin Amali, deputy chair of the national soccer association, apologized. Some players were seen shedding tears while others looked down sadly.
“It’s a heartbreaking decision that ruined our dreams, and now we are confused about our future as players if FIFA imposes sanctions,” said Hokky Caraka, a striker in Indonesia’s U-20 national team, “It's the players who suffer the most,” he said.
Shin Tae-yong, a South Korean former professional footballer and manager who is coaching the Indonesia national football team, said Indonesia’s failure to host the U-20 World Cup is a big loss.
“I am hurt!” he said, “I can feel the sadness and mental breakdown of the players. They have prepared tirelessly alongside me in the last three and a half years."
Popular social media were flooded with outraged comments from disappointed fans. Many blamed politics a year ahead of a presidential election. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
“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 an Interparliamentary Union conference in Bali last year and were warmly welcomed by Indonesian House Speaker Puan Maharani, the granddaughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, and by Bali Governor Wayan Koster, who was the first to reject the Israeli youth soccer team.
“Our stance on the U-20 World Cup is too politicized because a presidential election is coming,” Rabbani said.
Arya Sinulingga, a national soccer association executive committee member, expressed concern about further repercussions.
“This is a sign that we are not able to carry out what has been asked (by FIFA) ... among other things that there should be no discrimination,” Sinulingga said in an interview with local television. “What we are most worried about right now is that we will be ostracized from international events, especially from world soccer activities.”
The Indonesian soccer federation could be further disciplined by FIFA. A suspension could remove Indonesia from Asian qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. The continental qualifiers start in October.
The decision followed a meeting in Doha, Qatar, between Indonesian soccer federation president Erick Thohir and Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body.
Thohir, the former president of Italian club Inter Milan and a former co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, said as a member of FIFA, Indonesia had little choice but to accept the decision.
“I have tried my best,” he said in a statement. “After delivering a letter from President Joko Widodo and discussing it at length with the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, we must accept FIFA’s decision to cancel this event that we were both looking forward to.”
He said FIFA "considered that the current situation cannot be continued.”
Soccer and public authorities in Indonesia agreed to FIFA’s hosting rules, which require hosts to accept all qualifying teams, in 2019 before being selected to stage the 2021 edition of the Under-20 World Cup. The coronavirus pandemic forced the tournament to be postponed for two years.
Indonesia has long had an uneasy relationship with FIFA, which rejected its long-shot bid to host the 2022 World Cup early in the campaign in 2010 because mandatory paperwork was not filed. FIFA also removed Indonesia from the 2018 World Cup qualification program over government interference in the domestic league.
Thohir’s appointment this year to run Indonesian soccer was intended to bring more stability.
President Widodo urged people to respect FIFA's ruling.
“I know this decision has disappointed many people. I also feel the same, disappointed and sad,” Widodo said Thursday evening.
“But don’t waste our energy by blaming each other. As a great nation we must look forward, not backward. Make this a valuable lesson for all of us, for Indonesian national football.”
He said he has asked Thohir to make every effort so Indonesia will not be further sanctioned by FIFA.
Israel qualified in June last year for its first Under-20 World Cup by reaching the semifinals of the Under-19 European Championship. The team went on to lose to England in that final.
Israel has played in Europe since the 1970s after leaving the Asian Football Confederation for political and security reasons.
Dunbar reported from Zurich. Associated Press writer Edna Tarigan in Jakarta contributed to this report.