June 27, 2023
JAKARTA – Soccer Association of Indonesia (PSSI) chairman Erick Thohir may now have a second chance at winning the support of soccer fans after Indonesia was granted hosting duties for the 2023 FIFA U-17 World Cup, just three months after losing its U-20 hosting right to politics.
The occasion presents a potential launchpad for the Cabinet minister’s 2024 vice presidential bid, which is in need of a boost based on electability surveys.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino made the surprise announcement on Friday evening, with Indonesia taking over from original host Peru. The world soccer governing body revoked Peru’s hosting rights in April due to the country’s inability to complete the necessary infrastructure in time for the tournament, slated to run from Nov. 17 to Dec. 5.
In congratulating Indonesia, Infantino highlighted the country’s “incredible passion for football”.
Erick, who is also State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) Minister, emphasized this at a PSSI press conference on Saturday: “FIFA knows that out of the 273 million people in Indonesia, 73 percent love soccer. So it is aware of the potential we have.”
Indonesians’ love for soccer has long been documented, and analysts said that Erick’s decision to bid for the PSSI chairmanship was partly an attempt to court the soccer-crazed public for his electoral ambitions.
Crucially, the tournament’s scheduled dates overlap the beginning of the 2024 election’s official campaign period kicking off on Nov. 28.
But Erick and his cohorts may face earlier competition in Coldplay’s much-anticipated Indonesian concert.
With around three months left until the General Elections Commission (KPU) opens candidate registration on Oct. 15, the vice presidential nomination remains wide open.
According to its survey results released in June, Indikator Politik Indonesia (IPI) showed Erick was leading neck and neck with Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD at 15.5 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively.
Though he is unaffiliated with any political parties, the National Mandate Party (PAN) has rallied behind the PSSI chief and SOEs minister, campaigning openly for Erick as a potential running mate.
“We hope that [one of the front-runners] will pick Pak Erick Thohir as a vice presidential candidate,” PAN secretary-general Eddy Soeparno said on Sunday, as quoted by Tempo.co.
The party previously said it was still open to backing either Ganjar Pranowo, the presidential nominee of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), or Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto for the presidency.
With Ganjar and Prabowo headlining the latest surveys and opposition figure Anies Baswedan trailing behind, IPI political analyst Bawono Kumoro said the vice presidential pick could be significant.
“In the past, the PDI-P has typically chosen as running mates respected senior figures that are electorally incapable of posing a challenge five years down the line,” Bawono told The Jakarta Post on Monday.
“But when [PDI-P chair] Megawati Soekarnoputri ran against a strong incumbent in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009, she ran alongside Prabowo”, whose political star was rising at the time, the analyst said.
Bawono added that, as a respected figure with soccer industry credentials, Erick had unique appeal compared to other politicians.
“There has been a real attempt by Erick in keeping soccer fans happy, from winning the country’s first soccer gold medal in 32 years at the 2023 SEA Games, the friendly match with Argentina and now the U-17 World Cup announcement,” he said.
A noted figure in both global and national soccer, Erick’s relationship with Infantino dates back to 2015 when he chaired Italian soccer club Inter Milan, which the FIFA president has long supported. During the fallout from the Kanjuruhan Stadium tragedy last October, Erick served as President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s envoy and flew to Qatar to meet with Infantino in person.
In April, the PSSI chief denied suggestions that he had lobbied Infantino to grant Indonesia the hosting right for the U-17 youth tournament, and last week expressed his surprise at FIFA’s decision.
“We actually had no idea that there was talk of [Indonesia] being given the hosting rights. We know [FIFA] had a council meeting, but we don’t know the details,” Erick said on Saturday.
The PSSI chief also managed to secure the Indonesia vs. Argentina FIFA Matchday game on June 19, when the reigning World Cup champion trounced Indonesia 2-0. Despite the absence of Argentina superstar Lionel Messi, soccer fans heaped praise on Erick for putting together the big event.
The country’s neighbors haven’t been as warm in their reception of FIFA’s U-17 decision, however, with Vietnamese and Malaysian media highlighting Indonesia’s dismal youth soccer record.
The Indonesian team failed to make it past the qualification round for the 2023 AFC U-17 Asian Cup, while both the Vietnamese and Malaysian teams qualified and then were knocked out in the main draw.
But as the host nation, Indonesia is now automatically guaranteed a spot in the U-17 World Cup, along with the four semifinalists of the U-17 Asian Cup.
While soccer fans have pointed the blame at U-17 coach Bima Sakti for the team’s poor showing, the PSSI continues to place its trust in the former soccer player to lead the youth squad.
“We will give the opportunity to coach Bima, as we need more young coaches,” Erick said on Saturday.
“But since this is a World Cup, we and the PSSI executive committee are going to discuss the possibility of adding a chaperone.”