Palestino: a Unique Football Club in Santiago De Chile

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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.

Vidal Funambulist 1
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.