Indonesia being stripped of hosting U20 World Cup a blight on sports diplomacy
There is no room for politics in sports.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo made this clear when he welcomed the participation of Israel in the Under-20 World Cup, hosted by the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, despite the widespread protests at home.
Widodo stressed that hosting the Israeli junior football squad will not change its foreign policy with regard to the Jewish state.
However, some 24 hours after making that statement, FIFA stripped Indonesia of the right to host the junior tournament. A new host venue will be announced for the competition that starts on 20 May, 2023.
Muslim nations, including Indonesia, have largely been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and many do not enjoy formal diplomatic ties with Israel.
Widodo and his supporters’ push for an ‘ideological shift’ – that sports and politics do not mix – could have created a precedent of sorts for other Muslim nations in the region and beyond, if the island nation had hosted the event.
Ironically, Bali Governor Wayan Koster was among those who had protested against Israel’s participation. Bali’s population is predominantly Hindu, which led to suggestions that Koster’s call was politically motivated, ahead of the national polls next year.
This is an unusual scenario, where the key decision makers in the country were willing to give sports diplomacy a chance, only to see opposition from those with different political beliefs. As a result, Indonesia scored an own goal and may suffer serious repercussions, including sanctions.
Neighbouring Malaysia, just like Indonesia, does not have diplomatic ties with Israel. However, unlike the Indonesians, the Malaysian government was adamant in not allowing Israeli swimmers to take part in the 9th World Para Swimming Championships in 2019, in Kuching, Sarawak.
The then Malaysian Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, had told Kuala Lumpur-based news organisation Twentytwo13 that “the current status is straightforward; we will not host (events) if we know there is an Israeli team or organisation involved.”
The decision angered certain quarters, namely the International Paralympic Committee. It also showed how sports diplomacy had failed at playing cupid.
Indonesian officials are now working hard to minimise the impact of FIFA’s decision of hosting the Under-20 elsewhere. Indonesia cannot afford to be spurned by FIFA. Football is the No. 1 sport in the country, and any action that could jeopardise the team’s appearances in international tournaments would certainly anger the passionate fans of the Garuda.
The Indonesian government continues to tread the matter carefully, shielding itself from possible repercussions domestically, while opposition leaders view this as ammo to attack the ruling party.
If hosting the Under-20 had been well played, Indonesia could have inked its name in the history books for allowing sports to connect communities, and transcend ideologies, religion, ideals, and political beliefs.
Instead, this latest flap is another example of how sports diplomacy has, yet again, failed in its ethos of bringing people together.
It would seem that sadly, sports and politics, do mix.