Football, or soccer as it’s known in some parts of the world, is a sport that unites people from all corners of the globe. From the World Cup to local pickup games, football brings together individuals of different cultures and backgrounds to share in the joy and excitement of the beautiful game. It is also one of the most contentious sports in the world.
Recently, FIFA, the governing body of the sport, announced the cancellation of Indonesia’s hosting of the Under-20 World Cup, following the government’s decision to prioritize its diplomatic principles over the prospect of hosting a sporting spectacle it had spent years looking forward to and preparing world class infrastructure for.
The decision could not have been easy President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and his ally Erick Thohir, Chairman of the country’s football association, the Persatuan Sepakbola Seluruh Indonesia (PSSI) and a titan in the world of football in his own right.
The cancellation was triggered by protests from conservative religious groups against the planned participation of the Israeli football team. These have continued over the past fortnight, initially pushing FIFA to axe the draw for the group stage.
While Indonesia will now have to wait for the next opportunity to flex its muscles on the world stage, its people have been near unanimous in their support for the PSSI’s efforts to communicate their concerns to FIFA on this matter.
Mr. Thohir is thought to be in continued discussions with football’s overseeing body. The President has entrusted the PSSI Chairman with the task of walking a difficult tightrope of trying to fulfill Indonesia’s obligations to FIFA in the face of a split electorate at home.
The outcome, though disappointing to some, is in many ways unsurprising. Indonesia has remained wholly united in its opposition to the policies of the Israeli government against Palestine – an opposition which is even baked into the country’s founding constitution.
A divergence only emerges when different groups are asked how they might respond to this reality.
Of course, a high-profile footballing event would have been an ideal moment for the country to promote its culture, economy, and tourist destinations. The PSSI had already completed its tournament preparations and the six state-of-the-art stadia spread across the country were ready to be used.
Mr. Thohir’s next challenge will be to orchestrate another fitting occasion for their unveiling. Indonesia is a football mad nation, but a strong sense of principle helps to explain why so many Indonesians initially took to their smartphones to cheer on the PSSI’s negotiations with FIFA and are now fulsomely backing Mr. Thohir as he attempts to dissuade the body from a potential sanction.
Thohir and the Indonesian government deserve a fair crack at the next phase of negotiations for having abided by the spirit of the rulebook throughout this debacle in the face of strong public sentiment. Indeed, a cursory analysis of the past few months shows that they were diligent in doing so.
Since taking up the PSSI’s Chairmanship in February, Mr. Thohir has consistently made the case that the U-20 World Cup represented a compelling opportunity for Indonesia both internationally and economically and put in the work to make it a reality.
President Jokowi then took to the podium this week to extend Thohir’s message to the nation and to the world, setting out plainly that despite strong feelings held in good faith, sport and politics should never be mixed.
As the President spoke in Jakarta, Thohir travelled first to Zurich and then to Qatar for crisis talks with FIFA. He is reported to have explained the legitimate domestic opposition to the Israeli government and made clear that the PSSI was making every effort to live up to its international obligations.
The approach of Indonesia’s authorities, therefore, was neither blasé nor populist. Like most high-power bodies, the PSSI has experienced a degree of public pressure and worked to assess the legitimacy of this discontent. It then reacted accordingly and swiftly, all the while maintaining clear communications with FIFA as the ultimate arbiter over the tournament.
Yet this diligence may not be enough to spare Indonesia from a FIFA sanction, potentially in the form of a ban from future tournament qualifying rounds.
Thohir’s case will likely rest on the grounds that the PSSI successfully prepared for the tournament and has been fully engaged with FIFA throughout the period of domestic opposition to Israel’s participation.
A fair assessment from FIFA, therefore, would reflect that it is not in the interests of the Indonesian state or the PSSI to reject, override or ignore all forms of peaceful domestic protest.
As such, a sanction would be disproportionate, and the country should be allowed to fulfill its sporting potential at a future date once it has resolved its some of its internal contradictions – on this occasion, a love of sport balanced against a stubborn adherence to long-standing principles.