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Indonesia’s Stance on Israel Overshadows International Soccer Tournament

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Uncertainty over the timing and location of the Under-20 World Cup continues two days after Indonesian authorities postponed the official draw for the May 20-June 11 tournament because of protests over Israel’s qualification.

The draw, scheduled to held in Bali on Friday, was delayed indefinitely by Indonesia’s soccer federation amid backlash from conservative Islamic groups.

Doubt had already been cast on the draw ceremony when the governor of Bali, Wayan Koster, called for a ban on Israel playing there because of Indonesia’s diplomatic support for the Palestinian cause.

FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, has not commented on Indonesia’s status as host or a reported offer from Argentina to stage the event, with the trade-off of having an Argentine team in the tournament.

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Pressure on Indonesia’s soccer association, the PSSI, and its chairman Erick Thohir is mounting because if local authorities fail to resolve the hosting issues over Israel, the country risks being suspended by FIFA and potentially missing out on Asian qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.

Thohir is a former owner of major international teams, including Italian soccer giant Inter Milan and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, and has been Indonesia’s minister of state-owned enterprises since 2019.

His sport and political diplomacy skills will be seriously tested. Thohir and FIFA president Gianni Infantino are also both members of the International Olympic Committee.

“Continue to be passionate about finding solutions to every challenge, for the sake of an increasingly global Indonesia,” Thohir wrote in a Twitter post aimed at resolving the impasse.

Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, Muhadjir Effendy, said Thohir planned to fly to Zurich to hold further meetings with FIFA.

“We are still conducting talks,” Effendy, who is also serving as the acting minister of youth and sports, said after a cabinet meeting Monday. “We hope we can find the answer and at least FIFA will understand Indonesia’s position in this problem.”

Effendy also said that Indonesia submitted conditions to FIFA about the presence of Israel during the tournament, but there was no common ground. He did not reveal the conditions.

“This is not merely a rejection or protest, but this is related to our country’s Constitution,” he said in response to questions about the leaders of two provinces selected as tournament venues pushing back against hosting the Israeli team.

The preamble of Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution states: “Whereas Independence is the inalienable right of all nations; therefore, colonialism must be abolished in the world as it is not in conformity with humanity and justice.”

Thohir only took over as leader of the PSSI after a government investigation concluded that the national soccer association had been negligent and ignored safety and security regulations ahead of a deadly stadium crush last October and replaced its chair and executive committee.

The disaster in Kanjuruhan stadium in East Java’s Malang city was among the world’s worst sporting tragedies, with 135 people killed after police fired tear gas inside the venue, setting off a panicked run for the exits.

Read More: As the Kanjuruhan Tragedy Shows, Indonesia Has Not Resolved Its Long-Standing Problem of Soccer Violence

The Israeli team, which qualified for the Under-20 world tournament for the first time, had been expected to be based in Bali, home to one of the six stadiums scheduled to be used for the tournament, but the governor’s comments have thrown that into doubt.

Then Central Java Gov. Ganjar Pranowo, who is also the frontrunner for the 2024 presidential election, joined calls for the Israeli team to be denied a place in the tournament.

Pranowo said as a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, widely known as PDIP, he would uphold the mandate of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, whose daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri is chair of the party.

“We know Bung Karno’s commitment to Palestine, whether in the Asia-Africa Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement or the Conference of the New Emerging Forces,” he said last week, referring to Sukarno’s popular nickname, “So, we follow his mandate.”

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation with about 277 million people and does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Indonesian soccer and public authorities agreed to FIFA’s hosting requirements in 2019 before being selected to host the 2021 edition of the Under-20 World Cup, which was subsequently postponed for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Israel qualified last June by reaching the semifinals of the Under-19 European Championship. The team went on to lose the final to England.

The Israeli football federation plays continental competition under the European soccer umbrella after leaving the Asian Football Confederation in 1974 because of boycotts from the some national teams.

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