Inside the Havoc of Indonesia’s Failed Attempt to Host the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup

Since its establishment in 1977 as the FIFA World Youth Championship, the U-20 World Cup has been hosted by a wide range of countries from Tunisia to Malaysia to New Zealand and has seen a wide range of champions as well from Portugal to Ghana to Serbia to Ukraine. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country with 279,476,346 people, competed in the 1979 edition and suffered three losses to Argentina, Poland and Yugoslavia, conceding 16 goals and scoring 0. They haven’t returned since.


When Indonesia were selected as the hosts for the 2021 U-20 World Cup at the 2019 FIFA Congress in Shanghai, China, they looked set to become the first Southeast Asian nation to host an international tournament since the Futsal World Cup held in Thailand in 2012, the first football competition that Indonesia would host in their nation’s history and a welcome boon after being sanctioned by FIFA in 2015 due to President Joko Widodo’s attempts to reform the PSSI, Indonesia’s football association.


Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta co-hosted the 2018 Asian Games with Palembang, whilst the nation will co-host the FIBA Basketball World Cup alongside Japan and the Philippines in August. In order to prepare for the U-20 World Cup, Indonesia were invited to the upcoming Maurice Revello Tournament in Toulon, France. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting world football to a standstill and eliminating any chance of an international youth tournament in 2021. FIFA agreed to postpone the tournament for another two years…what could possibly go wrong?


The U-20 World Cup is composed of 24 teams from six continental competitions, with five European teams qualifying for the tournament out of a total of 55 participants. Whilst South America’s selection boasts the likes of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay, Europe features France, England, Italy, Slovakia, and Israel.


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Having qualified for their first and only World Cup in 1970 as an Asian country, Israel received full UEFA membership in 1994, 20 years after leaving the AFC. They have never competed in the European Championship, but they would book their ticket to the 2022 U-19 Euros after finishing first in their group of Hungary, Scotland and Turkey despite playing all of their matches in Hungary, securing their presence following a dramatic final day that would see Israel score the sole goal in the 88th minute, whilst Turkey scored two late goals to complete a comeback 2-1 victory.


Israel would begin their campaign with a 2-2 draw in Serbia after conceding an equalizer in extra time, before beating Austria 4-2 and losing 1-0 to England, finishing second in their group thanks to Austria beating Serbia 3-2 on the final matchday and qualifying for the U-20 World Cup for the first time in the nation’s history. They faced off against France in the semifinals and pulled off a 2-1 victory, before losing 3-1 in extra time to England in the final.


They looked set to participate in the tournament in Indonesia, home to the biggest Muslim population in the world, and a country that has supported the Palestinian cause for decades and thus has not maintained diplomatic relations with Israel. The first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, reigned from 1945 to 1967 and kept the nation on the side of Palestine, but his successor Suharto would begin to reach out to Israel due to the country’s need for military reinforcements.


In 1993, Suharto met with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PM of Israel just after the signature of the Oslo Agreement together with Yasser Arafat, leader of the West Bank and Gaza. The meeting was not about international peace or a philanthropic venture: Suharto needed some ammo to suppress strikes, rallies and protests from the opposition. Indonesia’s relatively comfortable relationship with Israel would come to a halt in 2006 after their series of battles with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.


We can trace the two nations’ icy relationship back to the qualifiers for the 1958 FIFA World Cup. At the time, African/Asian countries only had one slot, and Israel and Indonesia were placed in the same group as Sudan and Egypt. Indonesia requested that their matches against Israel be held at a neutral venue, which FIFA denied, causing Indonesia to withdraw. In the 1962 Asian Games, Israel was scheduled to take part in the competition, but Arab countries pressured the host nation of Indonesia into refusing to issue visas to the Israeli delegation.


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Fast forward six decades later to 2023 when Jakarta was chosen as one of the host cities for the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup. The Israeli shooter Sergey Rikhter, who won the gold medal in the 2019 European Games for Israel, withdrew after he was asked to not wear the symbols of his country. One month after Rikhter’s withdrawal, politics would come to the fore once again.


On March 26, FIFA announced that the draw for the U-20 World Cup had been suspended after Bali Governor Wayan Koster publicly opposed the presence of Israel in the tournament. The tournament was set to take place in six different venues — four in Java, one in Bali, one in Sumatra — but Koster’s comments as well as widespread protests in Bali and the capital city of Jakarta would cause Israel’s arrival in Indonesia to become a heated topic.


Just 12 days before this, Koster wrote to the minister of sports to protest against Israel’s participation. “There is no diplomatic relationship between the Indonesian government and the Israeli government. We request the Minister adopt a policy forbidding the Israeli team from competing in Bali.”


Indonesian society is a blend of different religions across the various islands  — Hinduism in Eastern Bali, Protestantism in West Papua, and Catholicism in East Timor. However, Islam is the predominant religion, and this Muslim majority has grown increasingly conservative in the past decade due in large part to Joko Widodo, who has served as Indonesia’s president since 2014.


Widodo has tried to distance himself from the establishment and the corruption scandals that were a trademark of the Indonesian government for a long time, but in order to keep his seat, he was forced to make a coalition with the biggest Islamic political party, the Partai Persuatuan Pembangunan (PPP), or the United Development Party.


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Despite being home to millions of football-crazy supporters, despite being the first Asian team to play in the World Cup — competing in the 1938 edition as the Dutch East Indies — they have been unable to fulfill their potential in football due to a lack of economic support. They have played in 6 AFF Cup Finals (a tournament for Southeastern Asian countries) and have lost in all of them.


As such, the U-20 World Cup provided a key opportunity for Indonesia to reinvent itself in world football after being banned by FIFA for one year due to government interference. Moreover, after a riot following the East Javanese derby left 153 people dead in October, Indonesia needed to improve its reputation and showcase that it could provide a safe space for football matches.


And yet, Indonesia’s bid to host the World Cup came to an end just five days before the draw was set to take place. There was plenty of speculation over which country would take the baton and pick up the hosting duties, but Argentina quickly emerged as the frontrunners. Having failed to qualify for the tournament, Argentina were the only country to submit a formal offer to host the competition, and they also boast the biggest Jewish community in Latin America, meaning that Israel will likely have more comfortable support than they would have in Indonesia.


Whilst Argentina will get to enjoy an unexpected berth in the U-20 World Cup, Indonesia have relinquished hosting duties and effectively shot themselves in the foot as far as future hosting opportunities come. So why exactly did Koster make this move and sabotage Indonesia’s youth team?


It all boils down to the bully pulpit; next year, elections will be held in Indonesia, and Koster wanted to win over the conservative vote by standing tall on the Israel issue. He is a member of the PDI-P Party (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan), a populist party that was led by Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the fifth president of Indonesia. PDI-P is also part of the governing coalition of Indonesia’s current president, Joko Widodo.


In effect, Koster has put political gain over anything else, and in doing so, he has effectively sabotaged Indonesia’s growth on the footballing stage. Not only will Indonesia lose money, but they will also not be a viable option for hosting international events for a while. A chance to grow trust in FIFA and repair a shoddy reputation has been wasted, and whilst Israel will be playing in the U-20 World Cup this summer, Indonesia will not.


By: Sebastian Alarcon / @AlarSebas

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Bali Tribune / Gubernur Bali Wayan Koster