Palestino: a Unique Football Club in Santiago De Chile



Omar walks with his hands in his pockets. It’s dark in the West Bank but he has already overcome the most difficult obstacle: fortunately, as expected, he only lost two hours at the check point. A clearing of the throat, the wrong intonation, or the simple bad humor of the Israeli police could have left him detained for several hours. He goes into Nazim’s restaurant. It’s full. He’ll have to watch the game while standing. Palestino jerseys are abundant in the West Bank. The return game at the quarter-finals of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana is broadcast by Al Jazeera, only because the Arab team is playing. They are coming from a 2-0 loss against San Lorenzo de Almagro, in Argentina. It’s almost impossible to turn it around, but there are fifteen thousand people at Estadio Monumental. It had been several years since Palestino gathered this many people in a stadium. A salute to the fans that follow them from Bethlehem or Jerusalem is heard over the loudspeakers. Omar and everyone in the restaurant feel they are part of the celebration. Supporters in the stands display the largest Palestinian flag in the world. It looks as though the impulses of that huge piece of fabric are what move Leo Valencia’s legs, who only takes two steps from the ball before hitting that free kick, the ball levitating above the barrier before its angled entry. That goal was not enough, it was not possible to turn the game around; however, the feeling Omar takes with him on his way back home is very different from that of defeat.

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At a Palestino football game in the Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna 

Palestino Sport Club is unique in the world. There’s no other club with that name, none that freely flies the Palestinian flag. It was founded 13,000 kilometers away because the Palestinian community in Chile (approximately 500,000 people) is the largest on the planet, aside from those in Arab countries. But Palestino is different from other community clubs. It stands out due to its independence claims — concealed at first, but nowadays intrinsic to its existence. Unión Española and Audax Italiano, for example, which were also founded by immigrants, have no such gestures. There is also Atlanta in Argentina, which has an important Jewish influence, but it was not founded by Jewish immigrants, nor has a name or an emblem that refers to them. What makes the difference here is that we are not in Palestine, but rather on the other side of the world. This separates them from, for example, Athletic de Bilbao, which is located in the geographical heart of their nationalist claims.

In the beginning, Palestino did not have a political discourse. However, especially since having a team jersey with the map, the situation started to change. In the 2014 championship, Palestino released a football jersey that had the number one replaced with a silhouette of the Palestinian map, showing its original boundaries before 1948, that is before the existence of the State of Israel. They managed to play three games before part of the Chilean Jewish community screamed blue murder. There was an international conflict: Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unhappy with what they perceived as a provocation, called to inform its diplomats in Chile. The symbol of the map on the jersey, representing a humble club from the Chilean first division, was on front covers all over the whole world. The Chilean National Association of Professional Football forced them to take it off. Instead, they incorporated it on the front of the jersey, next to the shield. They could not wear this particular jersey in the national championship, but they could sell it. After this controversy, and especially after classifying for the 2015 Copa Libertadores, jersey sales increased by more than 1000%, with orders coming from France, Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Brazil, as well as the Middle East. There are very few places in the world where the Palestinian flag can fly as freely as in their stadium, Municipal de La Cisterna. They are aware that thousands of Palestinians follow them from occupied territories and they know that the symbolic potential of the club is huge.

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At a Palestino football game in the Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna

Chilean Palestinians are composed in majority of Christians who moved to Chile in the beginning of the 20th century looking for a better life. Thousands decided to go into exile and, by the end of a long journey, ended up in Chile; on the other side of the planet, they were greeted with open arms. They arrived showing the only passport they had: issued by Turkey. This is why they are called Palestinians Turks and why they don’t like the nickname at all.

Palestino was founded in 1916, a year before the Balfour Declaration, when the British government decided to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine: the first political stone in the creation of the State of Israel. They played in amateurism with a team formed mostly by Arab players, until 1952, when they were invited to play in the Second Division, before immediately ascending to the First. Thanks to the contribution of textile entrepreneurs within the colony, a great team was put together in 1955, including the excellent Roberto Coll, an Argentinian player from Di Stéfano’s River Plate. They won the championship that year. Then came the great team of the late 1970s. The captain was one of the best players that Chile ever had: Elías Figueroa. Oscar Fabianni, Manuel Araya, and several others also stood out; they won the championship in 1978, and they still hold the record of 44 undefeated games. Just imagine what would have happened in Palestine if they had been able to watch that team of 1978 on giant screens. They would have been able to forget for a moment the occupation, the war, terrorism, repression, and simply enjoyed watching Elias and Fabianni play wearing the jersey of their beloved Palestine.

The sound of the players’ hands clashing together to greet each other in the middle of the field, the sound of the impact (clear, eloquent) of Leo Valencia’s instep when he kicks the ball to throw a long pass; the silence at La Cisterna allows the true sounds of football to emerge. Today, the crowd is small: around a thousand people. The community presence seems most evident on the mezzanine level. The majority of spectators have no Arab descent, but it does not require long conversations to hear them manifest a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause. Many started following the team during the 1978 campaign. All children are impressionable, and the choice of a team is a bigger commitment than any other. And these children that marveled at Elias Figueroa never imagined they would end up watching a game at the semi-empty stadium of La Cisterna. Yet they continue to do so. They don’t belong to the community, but their love for the team is so great that they deeply sympathize with the cause: they have become Palestinians by adoption.

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At a Palestino football game in the Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna. / Photographs by Cristóbal Correa & Nicolás Vidal (2017).

In recent years, the club’s political commitment has become stronger. The Bank of Palestine is their sponsor. In 2013, they organized a trip to Palestine for the teams of lower divisions. 2014 was the year of the map episode. At the beginning of 2016, in La Cisterna, they faced Ahli Al-Khalil, the champion of Palestine, where Chilean Roberto Kettlun played. During the second half of the game, Palestinian player Shadi Shaban entered the field as a backup. By the end of last year, Palestino went on a tour through their motherland. They were greeted with state honors. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, said: “We are the only country in the world that has two national teams.” Journalists and fans knew every player’s name. They signed T-shirts, shook hundreds of hands. They lost to the Palestine national team, 3-0, in a match played at Nablus and transmitted to the whole Arab world, but that didn’t matter. They also visited several clinics for children in refugee camps and played another friendly match in Hebron. This trip, a gaze to their origins, was literal this time. It involved crossing the world and dirtying cleats in a land that lives in constant suffocation and, in order to breathe a little, closes its eyes to become part of a team that carries their name and plays in the last corner of the world.

Roberto Bishara is the most emblematic of the Chileans who have played for the Palestine national team. He became captain, in 2009. But he’s not the only one, there are many others: Edgardo Abdala, Leonardo Zamora, Alexis Norambuena, Patricio Acevedo and Pablo Abdala, in addition to other assets, like Matias Jadue, Pablo Tamburrini or Jonathan Cantillana. However, it is Roberto Kettlun, who participated in over 20 games for the team and played with great success for four years in the Palestinian league that holds as much importance as Bishara. More than rival defenses, the greatest obstacle to the national team is Israeli check points, which limit the freedom of movement within Palestinian territories. Many are unable to train because they are detained for several hours without apparent reason. They are all aware of the tremendous value present in the mere existence of their national team. Perhaps that’s why they celebrate goals with more euphoria than the typical fan. “A Palestinian goal in our stadium is worth more than a hundred shots,” Bishara said once. And in that stadium, over in that fragile, shattered Palestine, we can see the proud jerseys of Palestino, with the map of their land printed on their backs.