Indonesia was set to host FIFA’s U-20 men’s soccer World Cup, a tournament in which Israel is slated to participate. Fueled by fierce opposition to recent deadly attacks against Palestinians, protesters hit the streets in the Muslim-majority country of more than 270 million people. Indonesians have long supported Palestinian independence, and the protests should have been expected. Demonstrators delayed the tournament draw and compelled Bali’s governor, Wayan Koster, to refuse to host the Israeli team. In response, FIFA made a shocking move: It stripped Indonesia’s right to host the tournament, vaguely citing “the current circumstances” in the country.
In hopes of salvaging the situation, Indonesian President Joko Widodo clumsily tried to thread a needle and separate sports and politics, supporting Israeli participation while also stating that it “has nothing to do with the consistency of our foreign policy position towards Palestine, because our support for Palestine is always strong and sturdy.” That was still not good enough for FIFA, which froze funding for Indonesia’s national soccer association.
Olivia Katbi, an organizer with the BDS movement, told us, “Despite its already well-known horrific reputation, FIFA’s decision to strip Indonesia of the U-20 tournament is still jaw-dropping. FIFA would rather torpedo its own tournament than face any objections or any accountability for its years of shielding Israel’s human rights violations.” She added, “They will not be able to avoid the truth forever. Cases like this show very clearly how difficult it’s becoming to sportswash apartheid.”
This is not FIFA’s first controversy in Indonesia. In October 2022, after the horrific Kanjuruhan Stadium disaster when police tear-gassed fans who had invaded the pitch as well as onlookers in the stands. The result was the second-deadliest stadium disaster in soccer history, with at least 135 people dying in a brutal crush. Less than three weeks later, FIFA President Gianni “Johnny Boy” Infantino showed up in Indonesia for a jovial photo-op kickabout with powerbrokers from the country’s football association, replete with high fives and colorful jerseys. “To say this was insulting is an understatement,” wrote Adam Leventhal of The Athletic. “Tone-deaf, insensitive, disconnected. You name it, this was it. To even use the word ‘disaster’ to describe this PR event feels demeaning to those who truly know the meaning of the word.” Leventhal summed it up as “sickening behavior from the most powerful man in the game.”
FIFA embraces the mythical fiction that politics and sports don’t have to mix. Although FIFA’s statutes state, “Discrimination of any kind…is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion,” specifically mentioning “sexual orientation or any other reason,” the group failed to stand up anti-gay laws in Qatar during last year’s World Cup. Infantino even signed a letter that was sent to all Qatar-bound teams advising them to leave politics behind and focus on soccer. FIFA also squelched Denmark’s scheme to don training shirts emblazoned with the prosaic phrase, “Human Rights for All,” in Danish: “Menskeregetteigs for alle.”
Indonesia, on the other hand, has a history of acknowledging that sports and politics do in fact mix. The country was supposed to host the Asian Games in 1962, but it did not offer invitations to two member countries: Israel and Taiwan. This infuriated the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to not recognize the Games and to suspend the Indonesian National Olympic Committee. When Indonesia stood firm, the IOC suspended the country for violating the Olympic Charter.
In response, Indonesia organized the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces, or GANEFO, in 1963 as an alternative to the Olympics. Indonesia’s nonaligned, nationalist President Sukarno explicitly merged politics and sports in his efforts to build an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movement. He stated, “Sports cannot be separated from politics. Therefore, let us now work for a sports association on the basis of politics.” In November 1963, more than 2,200 athletes from 48 countries participated in GANEFO, coming from Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, Guinea, Iraq, Japan, Mali, Morocco, North Korea, North Vietnam, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Palestinian athletes participated for “Arab Palestine.” Athletes from countries like Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, and the Netherlands could participate so long as they rebuked colonialism and imperialism.
In the United States, it’s sometimes easy to forget that our view of Israeli-Palestinian relations are skewed. In the US, people often have to risk their career to show solidarity with the Palestinian people or even sound the alarm against the occupation. But around the world, support for Palestinian self-determination runs thick. Palestine was a cause célèbre of the Qatar World Cup, with players and fans around the world publicly supporting Palestinian rights. Just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed with overwhelming majorities two resolutions supporting Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
It’s hard to square Israel’s recent attacks on worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque or its air strikes on Lebanon and Gaza with FIFA’s stated commitment to “humanitarian objectives.” To be sure, the governor of Bali’s refusal to host Israeli athletes was aimed to spark controversy, but FIFA’s statutes proclaim a commitment to “provide the necessary institutional means to resolve any dispute that may arise between Members, Confederations, clubs, Officials and Players.” Instead, FIFA brass slammed the door in the faces of the concerns of the Indonesian people.
It demonstrates the kind of rank hypocrisy that many hoped would end when Sepp Blatter was forced out of FIFA in 2015. But Infantino has been like Blatter on spring break: all of the venality with no sense of the political balancing act necessary to run FIFA in an increasingly polarized globe. If “soccer” truly does “explain the world,” then our world is riven by imperial injustice, yet we don’t have nearly the organized pan-national response we saw under Sukarno. There are no Games of the Newly Emerging Forces, because new forces have yet to emerge to challenge either Infantino’s blockheaded rule or the savage inequalities across the globe. Until that changes, the soccer fate of countries like Indonesia will find themselves in the position of accepting hypocrisy and injustice, or being told they can be cast to the sidelines.