July 10, 2023
JAKARTA – Domestic political tensions are threatening yet again to spoil a FIFA youth tournament in Indonesia, as the question of whether the Jakarta International Stadium (JIS) meets global sporting standards turns into a partisan squabble.
Indonesia is set to host this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup from Nov. 10 to Dec. 2, after the world’s soccer governing body withdrew Peru’s hosting rights in April over the country’s failure to finish building the infrastructure necessary for the tournament.
Similar issues have arisen in Indonesia as well. Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno (GBK) Sports Complex, the country’s biggest stadium, is booked for a concert by British pop band Coldplay on Nov. 15, conflicting with the dates of the U-17.
The current plan, proposed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in response to the scheduling issue, is to renovate JIS to serve as a venue for the U-17 tournament.
But the proposal has started a political row, with some political camps supporting the choice and others questioning the stadium’s facilities.
JIS was the pet project of former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, who left office in October and is running for president on a platform that opposes many of the Jokowi administration’s policies.
The state of the North Jakarta stadium’s turf has been a hotly debated issue after a Tuesday visit by Soccer Association of Indonesia (PSSI) chair Erick Thohir, Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono, acting Jakarta governor Heru Budi Hartono and infrastructure experts.
The officials concluded that the grass at JIS did not meet FIFA’s standards and that the stadium needed renovations, along with the 22 other soccer stadiums in the country set for refurbishment under the PSSI’s plan. Youth and Sports Minister Dito Ariotedjo said last week that the President had also ordered JIS to be renovated.
Erick, who has been floated as a possible vice presidential candidate for 2024, said the PSSI was waiting for FIFA officials to come inspect the stadiums for themselves before starting the renovations.
Some observers have claimed Erick’s plan to renovate JIS is politically motivated, while supporters of Anies have criticized the PSSI chairman for making so much of JIS’ shortcomings.
“There’s an infrastructure director at the PSSI who takes care of [these matters]. There’s no need for the chairman to give comments about the stadium,” Dali Tahir, a former member of the FIFA ethics committee, said at the Indonesia Lawyers Club forum on Thursday.
Dali said the chairman held political power that would have “an impact on the public, like it or not”.
Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) spokesman Muhammad Iqbal wrote in a statement on Thursday that Erick’s reluctance to use JIS was “as if he is too proud to acknowledge the great work of Anies Baswedan”, Tempo.co reported. PKS is part of Anies’ electoral alliance in the Coalition for Change and Unity (KPP).
Erick denied the allegations that he was proposing the renovations for political reasons, claiming that he was only highlighting the need to spruce up JIS.
“The government wants to renovate these 22 stadiums to match the international and FIFA standards. Before the  Asian Games, GBK’s grass and overall access were also revamped,” he said in a statement on Thursday, as quoted by Detik.com.
Engineering consultancy Buro Happold, which designed JIS’ infrastructure, has apparently deleted the phrase “FIFA-certified” from the page on its website that discusses the stadium following the debate.
Political analyst Firman Noor noted that voices on both sides of the issue had sought to make political use of the the situation.
“Anies supporters will promote him by highlighting how great JIS is for the U-17 World Cup, and perhaps that’s why [Erick’s side] is quick to make sure that Erick has a hand in revitalizing it,” Firman said to The Jakarta Post on Sunday.
Firman said the limelight would fall on whoever made best use of the situation, as soccer was the country’s most beloved sport. As the world’s fourth-most populous country, Indonesia has the greatest total number of soccer aficionados in the world by nation, with 69 percent of the population claiming to be fans of the sport, research from Ipsos shows.
Soccer watchdog Save Our Soccer coordinator Akmal Marhali said he was concerned that there had been more discussion of politics than sporting infrastructure.
“Do not let politics go any deeper, because FIFA is very much allergic to political matters, as was apparent in the U-20 cancellation before,” Akmal warned on Saturday.
Indonesia was stripped of its license to host the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in March as a result of local resistance to the Israeli national soccer team’s participation. Erick made a public, last-ditch attempt to lobby FIFA in Doha to save the country’s hosting rights the day before the announcement but was unsuccessful.
As the U-17 World Cup will be held during the 2024 general election’s official campaign period, which is to start on Nov. 28, Akmal called on all parties to keep politics and sports separate or Indonesia would risk fumbling another chance to host a major tournament.
“Let FIFA speak for themselves in terms of the standard needed [in the stadium],” Akmal said.
JIS was not part of the initial list of stadiums to host the U-20 World Cup, and some of its proponents suggested at the time that this was politically motivated as well. Other significantly smaller stadiums such as Pakansari Stadium in Bogor, West Java, and Manahan Stadium in Surakarta, Central Java, were named short-list contenders before FIFA revoked Indonesia’s hosting privileges.