Indonesian politics scores an own goal

Apr 13, 2023
Flying Flaming Soccer Ball with Indonesia Flag.

It’s the biggest story next door but barged offside by the Australian media for the Trump indictment and the ‘No’. There’s another factor: Soccer’s not our national game.

But it is Indonesia’s, and the reaction to the loss of the Republic hosting the Under-20 World Cup because Israeli youth will play is showing the Great Age Divide – much like responses to the upcoming Voice referendum.

Almost 30 per cent of the Indonesian population is aged 10-24 – and they’re the core of soccer crazies. The ageing oligarchs who gained power last century under the authoritarian regime of President Soeharto (1967-98) may have misread the national mood.

When Muslim radicals threatened strife in the upcoming international contest because Israeli boots might trample Indonesian turf, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo said religion had no place in sport.

He then dashed Indonesia Football Association boss Erick Thohir off to Zurich to reassure Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) President Gianni Infantino that no ugly incidents would harm the beautiful game.

The Swiss football administrator was unsurprisingly unpersuaded. As reported here, 135 fans died in a stampede last October at a match in East Java when police fired tear gas, ignoring FIFA’s strict crowd control rules.

Less than two months before the scheduled 20 May kick-off, Infantino yanked Indonesia out of the World Cup. Millions took to social media shouting ‘Foul’!

Jokowi heard, as he’d kicked balls as a kampong kid, but caught a signal semaphored from the VIP Box so switched tactics, telling the outraged: ‘Don’t waste your energy blaming one another. As a big nation, we have to look toward what’s in front, not behind.’

What’s in front is global opprobrium and local fury – except among those who play the hard game of politics and see sport as a business.

In the 2019 presidential election, the two biggest Islamic-based parties together drew only 13 per cent of the vote. Commented Endy Bayuni, a former editor of The Jakarta Post: ‘Fear of Islamism is widely exaggerated.’

Their numbers are small but their voices are shrill and they have truck tyres and petrol. Party leaders feared being wedged by faith fanatics in the upcoming Presidential election also blew FIFA’s whistle.

The anger at being denied the chance to watch the world’s best young players is widespread. In a country with more Muslims than any other, the fans want politics left outside mosques and stadia.

Midfielder Robbie Gaspar, president of the WA Indonesia Institute lived and played soccer in Indonesia for seven years. He’s now promoting the power of sports diplomacy through Monash Uni. He told this column:

‘Nothing brings Indonesia together as one like the National Football Team and when they play.

‘This tournament could have been the catalyst to drive the game forward, inspire more young players and improve the standard … this (withdrawal) has the potential to set the game back by five years at least.’

Some background: In 2019 FIFA awarded Indonesia U-20 World Cup host status for the 24-team contest, knocking out Peru and Brazil. Winning this prize was big time and started a clean-up of six grounds costing Rp 322 billion (AUD 32 million) for a 2021 opening. Hotels and economists rejoiced, anticipating visitors from everywhere.

But Covid ran onto the field and sidelined plans for two years. At the time few gave Israel’s chances much thought. Indonesia only made the grade through a clause allowing the host nation to participate, meaning the upcoming generation could get among the game’s giants.

In 2022 Israel, drawing its football talent from a population below ten million, suddenly trounced naysayers at the European Under-19 Championship.

FIFA reported that ‘the team exceeded all expectations … Having come so close to being crowned European champions, can Israel now cause shock-waves on the world stage?’

Answer: Yes, though not through athletic abilities. When he heard that Israel’s brilliant teens were scheduled to play in Bali, Governor Wayan Koster stamped his foot: Anyone from the Biblical Holy Land would never make it to the Island of the Gods.

Bali is Indonesia’s only majority Hindu province, a religion not known for antisemitism, but the driver is parochial politics.

Koster is a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which includes Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo. He’s currently tipped as the nation’s next leader but waiting to be blessed by party matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri, 76.

Two days after the Bali snub Pranowo checked his WhatsApp messages from PDI-P HQ and announced he doesn’t want any Israelis punting leather in his province. Flapping banners appeared shouting ‘Israel is the enemy of Islam.’

That’s contestable, but heat generates slogans incinerating facts and rational debate. Twenty per cent of the population follows Islam. A Gallup survey in 2015 found 65 per cent of Israelis aren’t religious.

One of the few who challenged the hate was the late fourth President Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid (1999-2001).

Although a revered Islamic scholar he was also a peace activist preferring diplomacy to bans. Unlike Widodo he stared down the fanatics, visiting Israel before and after his time in office.

This story is well seasoned with humbug. A year ago a delegation from Israel’s Knesset (parliament) visited Bali for official meetings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union without fuss. Koster was the host.

China allegedly persecutes the Uyghur Muslims living in the northwestern region of Xinjiang; like the Palestinians they want independence. China is the major investor in Indonesia and so far there have been few marching for the Uyghur.

Likewise, the reported mass killings of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Five years ago there were protests in Indonesia but the energy seems to have dissipated. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN which is led by Indonesia.

Kicking in all directions may seem smart politics, but it infuriates the young who want to pray and play. Voting isn’t compulsory so if Gen Z says a pox on all pollies the damage to democracy will aggravate the already serious injuries to Indonesian soccer.

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