Indonesian players, fans and pundits reacted with anger and sadness on Thursday after Fifa stripped the host nation of the right to stage the Under-20 World Cup weeks before its kick off, following protests against Israel’s participation.
The humiliating incident came after two influential governors advocated banning Israel from the football competition.
Indonesia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations, and support for the Palestinian cause in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation runs high, fuelling local opposition to hosting the Israeli team.
Fifa’s decision to find a new host – thereby striking out Indonesia’s automatic qualifying spot – puts the country’s most popular sport back in the doldrums and facing another bout of isolation as it recovers from a 2022 stadium stampede that killed at least 125 people.
Some of the nation’s football prodigies took to social media with fury after losing the chance to play at what Fifa bills as the “tournament of tomorrow’s superstars”.
“Energy, time, sweat and even blood we have put in but, in a moment, failed because of political reasons. Here’s our big dream that you’ve destroyed,” wrote 19-year-old striker Rabbani Tasnim.
A video online showed players with heads bowed and their coach in tears after receiving the news late on Wednesday that Fifa would seek a new host.
“We, the players, are now affected, not just us but all footballers,” said 18-year-old striker Hokky Caraka.
Head coach Shin Tae Yong said he was “heartbroken and tired” after preparing the team for more than three years for the showpiece.
On Thursday morning, flower boards for the players popped up outside the Football Association’s (PSSI) headquarters in Jakarta, including one that read “Do not give up on your dream”.
Indonesians also inundated the Instagram page of Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo with negative comments after he opposed Israel’s participation.
Bali governor Wayan Koster had also joined the anti-Israel chorus and around a hundred conservative Muslim protesters held an anti-Israel rally in Jakarta in March.
Mr Koster on Thursday cited the occupation of Palestinian lands and “threat and security” concerns for rejecting Israel’s participation, comparing his call for a ban to Russia’s exile from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The Democratic Party of Struggle, the powerful nationalist ruling party of President Joko Widodo and Mr Koster, in a statement expressed regret about the decision but said it had sought for Israel to play its games in “the nearest neighbouring country”.
But there was popular support for the tournament – scheduled to be held from May 20 to June 11 – to go ahead as planned with many viewing it as a source of national pride.
Jakarta had pledged to guarantee Israel’s participation despite its pro-Palestinian stance, but opposing voices became too loud for Fifa.
“This is a very painful incident for the Indonesian people. Those who made the noise and made us fail… must be held accountable,” said Akmal Marhali, an expert at football watchdog Save Our Soccer.
Indonesian officials said losing the tournament could cost the country “trillions of rupiah”.
Fifa also threatened further sanctions for the protests and could exclude Indonesia from 2026 World Cup qualifiers that begin in October.
However, for Indonesia’s fervent fans, it was the loss of their first-ever major football tournament that hurt the most.
“I am very disappointed because it has been my dream to watch Indonesia hosting a global football event,” said 40-year-old supporter Jarnawi.
“We are talking about youths who want to play soccer. They do not have any more interests. Why is this issue blindly mixed with political games?,” said pundit Justinus Lhaksana.
Fifa said the decision was taken following a meeting between its president Gianni Infantino and PSSI chairman Erick Thohir.
“A new host will be announced as soon as possible… Potential sanctions against the PSSI may also be decided at a later stage,” a statement read.
President Widodo said he was “disappointed and sad” over the call, but added that it must be respected.
“Don’t waste your energy blaming one another. As a big nation, we have to look towards what’s in front, not behind,” he said, adding he had instructed Thohir to work on avoiding Fifa sanctions.