As Indonesian football finds itself at the crossroads once more, players and fans are again the biggest losers


For a country with a population of more than 273 million -- the fourth largest in the world -- where football is the number one sport, it is easy to assume that Indonesia is brimming with potential to go far in the beautiful game.

And they are, on paper at least. Yet once again, Indonesian football finds itself at a crossroads with uncertainty over its future in the wake of being removed as hosts of the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Following a meeting between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Erick Thohir, the chief of the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI), FIFA announced that the Southeast Asian nation would no longer host the more senior of world football's two age-group tournaments this year. (The other being the FIFA U-17 World Cup.) The main factor stemmed from controversy over Israel's qualification and participation in the tournament.

As the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has long been a supporter of the Palestine cause, which explains why there was uproar over an Israeli contingent setting up camp on Indonesian soil even if but for a couple of weeks.

The situation started to unravel when the tournament's group-stage draw was cancelled because I Wayan Koster, the governor of Bali, refused to host Israel's team -- despite the island being a Hindu-majority province.

Then Zuhair Al-Shun, the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia, said he had no concerns over the country hosting the tournament even with the presence of Israeli representation. This led to speculation that the political opposition stemmed from a motivation to gain clout and favouritism ahead of local elections on the horizon.

Regardless of the motive, the fact remains that Indonesia will no longer hold what would have arguably been one of their biggest sporting events.

With the Kanjuruhan Stadium disaster -- which saw 135 killed in a human crush last October -- still fresh in the memory, Indonesian football could have done with the positivity of hosting the world's best and brightest young talents.

In the wake of the tragedy, Infantino even paid a visit to Indonesia and vowed that FIFA would help PSSI improve on stadium security and crowd control.

Now, in the same statement that confirmed Indonesia would no longer host the U-20 World Cup, there was a warning that "(p)otential sanctions against the PSSI may also be decided at a later stage".

Unfortunately for them, Indonesia are no strangers to such punishment. Most recently in 2015, they were hit with a FIFA suspension for government interference in footballing matters.

A potential ban could also rob Indonesia of a return to the AFC Asian Cup next year -- their first time since they co-hosted the tournament in 2007. Indonesia earned its qualification last year by battling through a difficult group that included Jordan and Kuwait.

Missing out on the continental meet would be yet another hammer blow considering Indonesian football has managed to regain stable footing since sanctions were last imposed on them.

The senior national team reached the final of the AFF Championship, Southeast Asia's premier tournament, in 2021. Despite the recent tragedy in the stands, on the field the domestic Liga 1 is healthily competitive and serving up decent football.

There was an expectation that their youngsters, boasting starlets such as Marselino Ferdinan and Ronaldo Kwateh, would have given a good account of themselves at the U-20 World Cup even if they had qualified by virtue of being the host nation.

Instead, these prospects -- many still in their teens -- were left in tears when they learnt that their dream of gracing a global stage had been dashed.

There are other losses incurred, from the building of infrastructure for an event that is no longer taking place to potential revenue that would have come in via sports tourism in the form of visiting fans from other countries.

Perhaps most of all, tens of thousands -- perhaps even hundreds of thousands -- of football-crazy locals have been robbed of the opportunity to witness, and even claim ownership, to the spectacle. The only time Indonesia have ever qualified for any World Cup was in 1938 when they participated at the senior tournament as the Dutch East Indies.

The Indonesian football fan can rival any in the world for sheer passion and fanaticism.

Yes, there is an ugly side to it, as previous -- and recent -- incidents will attest to. Opposition teams have even been known to require armoured transport and police escort to make their way in and out of stadiums.

But as is the case around the globe, there will always be a select few that take things too far and ruin the reputation of the majority.

In their purest form, the Indonesian fan simply derives sheer unbridled joy from the sport, not unlike any from other football-mad nations.

Case in point: the deafening roar as 46,184 celebrated in unison when Persija Jakarta scored a 93rd-minute winner in an AFC Cup tie back in 2018 -- bearing in mind that was merely a club match in a second-tier continental competition, with the 77,193-capacity Gelora Bung Karno not even two-thirds full.

Now imagine the sheer noise and euphoria emanating from the Garuda faithful if Marselino, Ronaldo or any of their peers had done so at the U-20 World Cup in front of a full house at the Bung Karno.

Still, as Indonesian football once again finds itself in turmoil, it is the players and fans who have lost out the most.