A woman walks past banners for the Indonesia 2023 FIFA Under-20 World Cup football tournament in Jakarta on March 30, 2023. FIFA announced on March 29 it had removed Indonesia as hosts of this year's under-20 World Cup amid political turmoil over Israel's participation. (Photo: Adek Berry / AFP)

PDI-P’s Own Goal? Controversy over Indonesia’s Loss as U-20 FIFA World Cup Host


The political machinations behind the scenes that eventually led to Indonesia’s loss of its U-20 FIFA World Cup host rights might have serious repercussions for the frontrunner of not just the country’s 2024 presidential but also general elections.

Two Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) cadres, Bali Governor I Wayan Koster and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, are now the targets of Indonesia’s mainstream and social media after the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) stripped Indonesia of its host rights to stage the 2023 U-20 World Cup. 

There were rumours surrounding the security of the tournament following the Bali governor’s citing of the 12 October 2002 bombing attacks in Bali and the trauma suffered by the Balinese as the main consideration behind FIFA’s decision. These were unfounded – FIFA’s official statement mentions “current circumstances”, no doubt referring to the anti-Israel protests of last month which marred Indonesia’s image of tolerance and gave rise to real doubts about the security of the youth footballers. 

PDI-P’s politicians have made two key miscalculations. The Israeli team had qualified for the U-20 Cup as early as in June 2022. The government could have easily predicted that local resistance (to Israeli youth footballers playing in Indonesian stadiums) would come from certain Islamic parties and groups that have been vocally anti-Israel. But a recent report revealed that the centre of opposition to Israel’s participation in the U-20 Cup ironically came from the ruling party, PDI-P. While President Joko Widodo is not the party’s leader, party chair Megawati Sukarnoputri either cut him out of the loop regarding Koster and Pranowo’s anti-Israel rhetoric or worse, the president misread the party dynamics and could not set things right to ensure Indonesia retained its host rights.  

The latest Tempo magazine scoop revealed the behind-the-scenes chronology of the PDI-P’s move to reject the Israeli youth soccer team. Megawati reportedly summoned one of her confidants on 13 March to quietly issue the official party line. All PDI-P governors of provinces where the U-20 soccer matches were scheduled had to publicly reject the Israeli team. Within days of this alleged decision, party cadres I Wayan Koster and Ganjar Pranowo, one of the frontrunners for the 2024 presidential race, did just that.

The PDI-P has grossly misread the public mood. Instead of gaining an electoral boost by echoing anti-Israel Islamic elements, Koster and Pranowo’s public rejection of the Israeli youth soccer team has become a boomerang. These two men are attracting negative attention, not least from a large number of Indonesian football fans (mostly young and male). PDI-P Secretary General Hasto Kristyanto, separately cited an SMRC poll finding that 71 per cent of respondents blamed Israel in the Palestinian issue as the basis for his party’s decision to speak out against Israeli U-20 participation in Indonesia. SMRC has repudiated Kristyanto for cherry-picking and taking its poll findings out of context. 

PDI-P might argue that its rejection of the Israeli soccer players was not political but in keeping with public sentiment against Israel’s policy in Palestine. Yet the Indonesian public has the right to question the party’s inconsistent stance. Israeli athletes have attended other sporting events in Jakarta in recent months without incident, while the PDI-P did not oppose an Israeli parliamentary delegation attending an Inter-Parliamentary Union event in March 2022 in Bali. 

An INDIKATOR national phone survey conducted from 22-27 March 2023 with 1,213 respondents found that a majority of Indonesians would have wanted the U-20 to be held in Indonesia even if Israel participated. When asked if the U-20 Cup in Indonesia should be cancelled because Israel was one of the participants, 58.6 per cent disagreed and 30.2 per cent agreed, while the rest did not know. When the survey data is analysed further, among respondents who knew that Israel successfully qualified for the U-20 Cup (at 30 per cent of total respondents), the proportion that disagreed with FIFA’s cancellation of Indonesia’s host rights was much higher (at 70.5 per cent).

Cross-tabulation analysis by INDIKATOR shows that PDI-P and Ganjar Pranowo, the frontrunners in current electability polls, should be wary of the adverse impact of the U-20 debacle on their 2024 electoral performance. The majority who voted for Widodo and PDI-P in the 2019 elections tended to support Israel’s participation in the U-20 Cup (had it been held in Indonesia). In contrast, the majority of PKS, PAN, and PPP’s 2019 voters opposed Israel’s presence. The attitude of the PDI-P elite, in stirring up ground sentiment rejecting the participation of the Israeli youth soccer team in the U-20, basically runs counter to the sentiments of the party’s base. 

The March 2023 INDIKATOR survey – conducted before the FIFA fracas – saw Ganjar Pranowo at the top of a 19-candidate simulation, with 27.7 per cent of respondents choosing him, unchanged from February 2023. Pranowo’s two main rivals for 2024 in the same March 2023 survey saw slight shifts in popularity. Prabowo Subianto’s support rose from 17.9 per cent in February to 21.9 per cent in March, while Anies’ dropped from 17.2 per cent to 15.9 per cent. Intriguingly, a majority of Ganjar’s (59.3 per cent) and Prabowo’s supporters (55.4 per cent) agreed with the presence of the Israeli team in Indonesia for the U-20 Cup. Most of Anies’ supporters, however, rejected Israel’s participation. 

Public dissatisfaction with the government’s loss of a “once-in-a generation” chance to host a world-class sporting event is growing and the search for a public scapegoat has intensified.

The problem is that, of the three potential candidates, Ganjar was the most vocal in opposing Israel’s youth footballers. Public dissatisfaction with the government’s loss of a “once-in-a generation” chance to host a world-class sporting event is growing and the search for a public scapegoat has intensified. Already, hundreds of thousands of comments by angry football fans have emerged on Ganjar’s social media accounts. Some explicitly threaten to vote against the PDI-P and Ganjar in 2024. This begs the question of whether a trap had been set for Ganjar, by his own party.

If Ganjar’s star fades, Prabowo is more likely to benefit than Anies. Ganjar’s supporters are ideologically more aligned with Prabowo than Anies. Furthermore, Prabowo has now joined the coalition backing Widodo’s government, while Widodo has signaled his support for Prabowo. 

While there is one advantage to Ganjar’s anti-Israel rhetoric in that he is seen to have toed Megawati and the PDI-P’s line, this display of loyalty came at the expense of his own reputation. If the public anger about the U-20 Cup has not dissipated by the time the 2024 presidential elections come round next February, PDI-P and Ganjar might well have shot an own goal.


Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Senior Lecturer at Islamic State University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah.