GENEVA -- Indonesia was stripped of hosting rights for the Under-20 World Cup on Wednesday only eight weeks before the start of the tournament amid political turmoil regarding Israel's participation.
FIFA said Indonesia was removed from staging the 24-team tournament scheduled to start on May 20 “due to the current circumstances” without specifying details.
The decision followed a meeting in Doha, Qatar between Indonesian soccer federation president Erick Thohir and Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, soccer's world governing body.
Israel qualified in June of last year for its first Under-20 World Cup. But the country's participation in the official draw for tournament groups, scheduled to be held Friday in Bali, provoked political opposition this month.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, while publicly supporting the Palestinian cause.
Indonesia’s host status for the tournament was cast into doubt last Sunday when FIFA postponed the draw.
It is unclear who could now host the tournament, which was scheduled to be played in six stadiums in Indonesia. Argentina, which did not qualify for the tournament, is reportedly interested in hosting.
“A new host will be announced as soon as possible, with the dates of the tournament currently remaining unchanged,” FIFA said.
The Indonesian soccer federation could be further disciplined by FIFA. A suspension could remove Indonesia from Asian qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. The continental qualifiers start in October.
FIFA seemed to remove all blame Wednesday from Thohir, the former president of Italian club Inter Milan — the team Infantino supports — and a former co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.
FIFA staff will continue to work in Indonesia in the months ahead, the governing body said, “under the leadership of President Thohir.”
Thohir said as a member of FIFA, Indonesia had little choice but to accept the decision.
“I have tried my best,” he said in a statement. “After delivering a letter from President Joko Widodo and discussing it at length with the President of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, we must accept FIFA’s decision to cancel the holding of the event that we are both looking forward to.”
He said although he'd conveyed all the concerns and hopes of Indonesia's president, soccer lovers as well as the players from the Under-20 Indonesian national team, “FIFA considered that the current situation cannot be continued.”
Soccer and public authorities in Indonesia agreed to FIFA’s hosting requirements in 2019 before being selected to stage the 2021 edition of the Under-20 World Cup. The coronavirus pandemic forced the tournament to be postponed for two years.
But Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Tuesday evening that his administration objected to Israel’s participation. He told citizens that the country agreed to host before knowing Israel would qualify.
However, the removal of the hosting rights by FIFA has raised concerns within Indonesian soccer.
Arya Sinulingga, an executive committee member of Indonesia’s national soccer association PSSI, was concerned about further repercussions.
“This is a sign that we are not able to carry out what has been asked (by FIFA) ... among other things that there should be no discrimination,” Sinulingga said in an interview with a local television, “What we are most worried about right now is that we will be ostracized from international events, especially from world soccer activities.”
He said that “it can happen and it will be very detrimental to us in many ways.”
“We have something that is bigger than losing our right to host the Under-20 World Cup. We have to face it in the near future, and that could effect the future of our sport,” Sinulingga said, “We are now fighting not to get sanctioned, but people should know ... this is too hard.”
Israel qualified for the tournament by reaching the semifinals of the Under-19 European Championship. The team went on to lose to England in that final.
Israel plays in Europe as a member of UEFA after leaving the Asian Football Confederation in the 1970s for political and security reasons.
FIFA bills the men's Under-20 World Cup as “the tournament of tomorrow’s superstars.”
Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba are previous winners of the official player of the tournament award, and Erling Haaland was the top scorer at the 2019 edition.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Edna Tarigan contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.
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