Sports and politics don’t mix

The fallout of the embarrassing verdict may be far-reaching, as Indonesia may be banned from hosting future international competitions under FIFA’s auspices.


State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir (left) meets FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Doha on Oct. 5, 2022. (Courtesy of/Indonesian Soccer Association (PSSI))

March 30, 2023

JAKARTA – “Don’t mix sports with politics.” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s statement on Tuesday was loud and clear, responding to the controversy on the participation of the Israeli team in the upcoming 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in six Indonesian cities.

It is apparent that Jokowi wants the show to go on despite the fact that it has divided the nation and put him on a collision course, yet again, with his own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). His defense that the core values of sports give no room for politics, has unfortunately been met with Indonesia’s characteristic realpolitik, which does not bode well for his dream of promoting Indonesia to the world stage of soccer.

The President’s assurance that the tournament would not affect Indonesia’s anti-Israel and pro-Palestine foreign policy has fallen to deaf ears.

Jokowi has sent Soccer Association of Indonesia’s (PSSI) chief, Erick Thohir, who also chairs the youth tournament’s organizing committee, to meet with FIFA boss Gianni Infantino in Doha, in a last-ditch effort to salvage the event. Erick is no stranger to high-level soccer diplomacy as he previously helped Indonesia evade FIFA’s sanctions following the stadium crush in Malang, East Java, which claimed 135 lives, the second worst in soccer history.

Now that FIFA has stripped Indonesia of its right to host the event, the country’s international credibility is at stake. We have forfeited a golden opportunity to advance the sport—for our national youth team, which had been groomed for the tournament, and the PSSI to learn from the world’s best talents.

But no solution this late in the game would have been perfect. If FIFA had allowed the tournament to be held in Indonesia, anti-Israel demonstrations would have followed, along with their security repercussions, and ties between Jokowi and the PDI-P would have been deeply strained at a time when he needed the party’s support.

The fallout of the embarrassing verdict may be far-reaching, as Indonesia may be banned from hosting future international competitions under FIFA’s auspices.

Rumors have circulated that FIFA may relocate the U-20 tournament to Peru, which has won the bid to host the U-17 World Cup in November of this year. In exchange, Indonesia could take over the hosting of the U-17 event, in which Israel stands a slim chance of qualifying. 

The endgame of this affair will unfold soon, but one thing for sure is that politics still prevails in almost all aspects of life in this country.

We have seen the weaponization of laws for political interests, as happened in the enforcement of the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law, the revision of the Criminal Code, and the politicization of religion, which was rampant during elections both in national and regional levels.

The move by Bali Governor I Wayan Koster and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, who both are PDI-P members, to reject entry of the Israeli youth team is a blatant attempt to politicize sports. With the Feb. 14, 2024 elections in mind, the PDI-P, which failed to perform in regions known for their leaning to conservative Islam, will expect to reap votes from

Muslim electorates to win both the legislative and presidential elections.

Especially for Ganjar, who has consistently topped the opinion surveys of potential presidential candidates, his anti-Israel narrative is a display of loyalty to the party, while proving his Islamic credentials to voters. In fact, PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri has not made her mind about her choice of presidential candidate.

Such resistance sounds “normal” if it comes from Muslim-based parties. Only this time around, the PDI-P is making a big fuss of the Israel issue while it was silent about the Knesset delegation’s presence in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which the House of Representatives hosted in Bali in March last year.

The PDI-P, too, was quiet when Israel assured itself of a ticket to Indonesia in July last year.

It seems Indonesian soccer has been unable to break the “curse” of political intervention.

scroll to top