Singapore/Jakarta: Football-mad Indonesia is preparing to stage its first major tournament, the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in May, but a row has erupted over the participation of Israel with Bali refusing to host the team.
Conservative Muslims this week marched in protest at Israel’s inclusion in the 24-nation competition and opposition has since widened. Bali Governor Wayan Koster has written a letter to the national government, pushing back against hosting the team because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
Protesters march against the Israeli team’s participation in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday.Credit:AP
Organisers had envisioned holding the Israeli team’s group games in Hindu-majority Bali, where the draw for the tournament is due to be made next week.
The stance of the island’s provincial government has added further complication to an event Indonesia hoped could improve its global standing in the sport, seven months after a stadium disaster in East Java killed 135 people.
While Indonesia supports the cause of the Palestinians and does not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel, the government of Joko Widodo has committed to welcoming and protecting the Israeli team since it qualified for the tournament.
Opposition to Israel’s participation in the tournament has widened with Hindu-majority Bali refusing to host the country’s team.Credit:AP
Acting Sports and Youth Minister Muhadjir Effendy confirmed receipt of the Bali letter. He said Indonesia’s position on Palestine was unbending but he hoped to change the island leader’s mind.
“The bottom line is that [being the host for the U-20 World Cup] is the government’s policy. Therefore, we try to make a compromise because it was us who proposed to be the host,” he said.
“We must remember that we are also part of the world’s citizens. And now we receive the honour to hold an event which we may not be having within the next 50 years. Therefore, we want to make the best of it and we also prepare our team well.
“We therefore will try to work [on the issue] within the next few days. Hopefully, it will be positive and will be a blessing for all of us.”
Four of the five other venues for the tournament are on the main island of Java – in Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Widodo’s home town of Solo – while Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra province, will also host matches.
Bali Governor Wayan Koster has pushed back against hosting the team because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East.Credit:Amilia Rosa
It was in Jakarta on Monday where more than 100 protesters rallied against Israel’s involvement, waving Palestinian flags as they stopped traffic near the presidential palace.
The demonstration itself was small but calls to exclude the Israeli team have been endorsed by some moderate Muslim organisations including Muhammadiyah Society, which has more than 60 million members, and the Ulema Council, a group of scholars that oversees Islamic affairs.
That outcome would leave Indonesia ostracised by governing body FIFA, according to Akmal Marhali, the head of Indonesian football watchdog Save Our Soccer.
“What is certain is our FIFA membership would be crossed off,” he said. “When we proposed ourselves to be the host, we should have been prepared for all the consequences that might occur such as if Israel, Iran, Iraq and Palestine all could pass the qualification round.
“We cannot exclude Israel because Israel passed the qualification round.”
Marhali said Bali was the best choice for Israel’s games in the tournament, which won’t feature a team from Australia, who failed to quality.
But he believes the governor, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), has come out against it for political reasons ahead of next year’s national elections, not wanting to be seen to be opening his arms to the Israeli team.
“If he said, ‘please Israel, come down to Bali’, it could invite noises saying ‘PDIP supports Israel to come to Indonesia’,” he said.
“It could create a bad image for PDIP.”
It is not the first time there has been controversy over Indonesia and Israeli sport.
In 1962, the country’s first president, Sukarno, refused to have Israeli athletes at the Asian Games in Jakarta. In 2006, it withdrew from a tie against Israel in the women’s team tennis competition formerly known as the Federation Cup.
The country is staging the cup as the fallout continues from the October tragedy in Malang where135 people died at a league game between host Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya after police fired tear gas inside the stadium, setting off a panicked run for the exits.
A court this month acquitted two police officials of a charge of negligence leading to the deaths and sentenced up to 18 months in prison a third official as well as the organising committee chair for Arema FC and the club’s security chief. The verdict drew outcries from rights activists and victims’ families.
Erick Thohir, minister for state-owned enterprises and a former owner of Italian football giant Inter Milan, has since been named as the new head of the Indonesian Football Association.
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