Taiwan’s women’s soccer players are facing a stern challenge in Asia Cup qualification, as they depart today and travel across the continent to play three vital games in Ramallah, Palestinian Territories.
It is history in the making, as this is the first time the Palestine women’s national team will play an international match in Palestine, which gained de facto recognition as a state in a vote by the UN General Assembly on Nov. 29 last year.
The games also serve as qualifiers for the 2015 FIFA women’s World Cup in Canada, with Taiwan in Group D along with the hosts, India and Myanmar.
Soccer officials confirmed that it is the squad’s first ever trip to the Palestinian Territories.
Some will see the national squad entering a “war zone,” as names such as Palestine, the West Bank and Ramallah mostly enter the Taiwanese consciousness and gain media attention when there is news of the ravages of war and fighting in the Middle East, or military action in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Compared with the relative tranquility of staging a match in Taipei or Greater Kaohsiung, the squad would seem to be heading into a boiling cauldron of sectarian violence and factional strife.
Just this past week trouble flared up in the West Bank, setting up a political backdrop to the upcoming tournament.
On Thursday, Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces clashed in the West Bank as thousands of Palestinians marked the Jewish state’s creation in 1948 with rallies.
Soldiers fired rubber bullets at protesters gathered in front of the Ofer military prison near Ramallah, wounding 15 of them as thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to demonstrate on Nakba Day.
It will be an arduous journey to Ramallah, as the team fly to Hong Kong today, then board a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight to Amman, with a fueling stopover in Bangkok. From the Jordanian capital they are taking a one-day bus ride to Ramallah, where all three visiting national teams are staying.
Adressing security concerns for the players’ stay in the West Bank, team secretary Beverly Huang told the Taipei Times that their safety has been guaranteed by the host nation, as well as by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
“We have been assured by the AFC that the host nation will provide all the necessary arrangements and we will be well-protected. They will provide security forces for all the teams at the hotel, on their travels through Palestine and at all the games,” Huang said.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials in Amman will receive the squad at the airport and travel with the team to Ramallah, while providing any assistance.
The bus from Amman to Ramallah is to be accompanied by a state security convoy, and also on the return trip, she added.
“Taiwan’s consulate in Tel Aviv, Israel, is also on notice to help out the team as needed, because that is our government’s official representative office closest to the West Bank. So if anything happens, they can also provide assistance,” Huang said.
When asked if the players are concerned about their personal safety going to such a restive region, Huang said: “Since the AFC and the host nation have guaranteed our safety and we will have security forces protecting us, the players are not too worried.”
“Their main concern is actually the long journey to reach the destination, with the physical and mental adjustments needed to cope with the flight changes, and then having to endure the long bus ride from Amman to Ramallah,” she said.
This story has been updated since first published.