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The Chilean football club playing for Palestine

Deportivo Palestino: The Chilean football club playing for Palestine
7 min read
22 June, 2021
In-depth: Club Deportivo Palestino has a long and historic connection to Palestine and the club is using sport as a means of supporting and showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Following May's attacks on the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces, the international community rallied in solidarity with the Palestinian people and condemned the ongoing violence.

There was an outpouring of pro-Palestinian support as people across the globe took to the streets and to social media to express their solidarity. 

One particular gesture of solidarity came from 8,000 miles (13,000km) away in a setting conventionally separate from the world of complex geopolitics: a football stadium.

On 9 May, the Chilean football team Club Deportivo Palestino walked onto the pitch wearing keffiyehs as a show of solidarity ahead of their league clash against rivals Colo Colo.

The gesture was not a one-off for the club, as Palestino shares a history that is deeply and intrinsically linked to Palestine, making it an oddity in the sporting world.

Club Deportivo Palestino's origins

Club Deportivo Palestino was established in 1920 by the Palestinian diaspora in Chile, the largest outside the Arab world - now over 500,000 people strong.

"To have a football club that represents your values and your origins, as well as representing that harmony with the needs of the Palestinian people, fills me with pride and satisfaction," club president Jorge Uauy, who is, himself, of Palestinian descent, told The New Arab.

The vast majority of Palestinians arrived in Chile between 1900 and 1930, hailing predominantly from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and Beit Safafa.

The football club was set up with the twin goals of aiding integration and preserving the diaspora community, reflected in the club name and its colours. The team plays in the white, red, and green of the Palestinian flag.

Palestino remained an amateur team exclusively represented by Arab players until 1952 when it went professional and began competing in the national league. It rose through the ranks and established itself as a first division club, gaining titles and a devoted fan base along the way.

A deep connection to the Palestinian cause

A few days after stepping onto the field in a keffiyeh, Nicolás Zedán, a player of Palestinian descent, appeared in a video posted by the club.

"Despite the distance that separates us, Palestine is always in our hearts, and given the seriousness of the events that are taking place, we wanted to give all our solidarity to our Palestinian brothers. They are 13,000km away, but the Palestinian community and the club support the Palestinian cause because it is also our cause. All our heart, strength and support is with Palestine, and long live free Palestine," Zedán said.

Sponsors and organising bodies pressure the modern footballing world to keep political issues off the pitch - as the former Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil learnt after denouncing Chinese abuse of Uighur Muslims.

Nowadays, the lines between a sports club and an international business corporation have become increasingly blurred, with clubs heavily reliant on multi-million dollar sponsorship deals, commercial investments, and good PR to guarantee profits. Political statements are seen as posing a serious business risk, pushing clubs to remain on the sidelines.

But not Club Deportivo Palestino. Upon consolidating itself as a legitimate force in Chilean football, the club has used its position in the sporting world to provide visibility and support for the Palestinian cause.

"We are not a political entity, we're a sporting entity. Palestino represents our Palestinian origins and our connection with the past and the present of Palestine and that does not need to be necessarily political. It's an identity more than a political movement, and that identity and connection with the Palestinian people is what we represent," Uauy explains.

Perhaps its most noticeable gesture came in January 2014, when the club replaced the number one on their shirts with a map of pre-1948 Palestine. The kit instantly became news as well as a cult favourite among fans - especially the number 11 shirt.

In 2014, the Chilean football federation banned CD Palestino from using a shirt that showed the number one shaped like a map of historic Palestine. [Getty]

The club saw record sales for the kit with orders coming in from across Latin America, Morocco, Turkey, the USA, Spain, Germany, and Portugal.

Following complaints from Chile's Jewish communities, the Chilean Football Federation banned the shirt and fined Palestino $15,000.

"Palestino's main mission is to provide the Palestinian people with a voice. This has cost the club multiple sanctions, but each fine has been absolutely worth it," says die-hard Palestino fan and journalist José Nabzo, who is also of Palestinian origin.

"Sport has to be linked to politics, a fine or an economic sanction hurts much less than the satisfaction we get from seeing the Palestinian flag fly," he adds.

The fine did not deter Palestino and the club sought to further strengthen its ties to the Palestinian cause by travelling to Palestine in 2016. 

Over the course of a week, the team played two matches - one against the Palestinian national team, and another against an all-star Hebron team - and also visited historical sites and organised training sessions with local children.

Then-manager Christian Elbel Nazal, whose father was from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, said: "The main purpose of this visit is to reconnect the team to our origins in Palestine."

Players committed to the cause

For fans like Nabzo, last month's attacks highlighted the necessity for the club to raise awareness and support.

"You feel pain because of what has happened… This is a problem for which one really does not see a solution. It makes you feel helpless when you see that people that you have met evicted, that someone's brother, daughter, or nephew was killed in a raid. That obviously makes us feel helpless, but that is also why we have the desire and motivation to continue raising our voice on the issue," he says.

Those who don the Palestino shirt quickly come to understand the weight that it carries and the connection to the Palestinian cause. It is evident throughout its humble stadium - La Cisterna - decorated with the colours of the flag and outlines of the pre-1948 map of Palestine, in which fans often wave the Palestinian flag at games to chants of "Gaza resists, Palestine exists!"

Their club motto, embroidered onto the kit, sums it up: "More than a club, it's an entire people."

Palestino fans cheer their team before the Palestino vs Boca Juniors Copa Libertadores match at Santa Laura stadium in Santiago in 2015. [Getty]

"This is more than just a football club. It's not just a team that has to win and gain three points at the weekend, you're defending a people and a cause. It's much more than a football club, it's a people and we represent them," says Roberto Bishara, a former player of Palestinian origin.

Bishara, who was nicknamed the 'Arabic Prince', spent eight years at Palestino and became a favourite among fans. He was also played for the Palestinian national team for 11 years, representing the country on 26 occasions. 

"I was really proud to represent Palestine and defend the country where my father and grandfather were born. If I were born again I would never play for the Chilean national team, I say it with respect, but I would choose to represent Palestine," Bishara says.

His love for the cause is still evident, his WhatsApp profile features a photo of him standing proudly, arms akimbo, wearing a keffiyeh, while his status simply reads "Arabic Prince. Inshallah."

"Sometimes players arrive who may not understand much [about the cause], but once they understand what we represent they begin to identify with it themselves and begin to love the club," Bishara tells The New Arab.

This love for the club and defence for the Palestinian cause is something the club's fans have come to expect from the players and cherish them for. Playing for Palestino entails an added responsibility of defending the ideals the club and its fanbase hold so dear.

"They get paid to play, so they could just say 'I don't want to have anything to do with that' or not get involved in political issues due to conflicts of interest. But instead, they take the initiative and take advantage of the platform football provides to do something, which is a sign that the club has had an impact on them," Nabzo says.

"It makes you feel very proud. It's really beautiful to see them show solidarity with Palestine, that's worth much more than any goal".   

Inigo Alexander is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Spain, Latin America and social justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Local, NACLA, among others

Follow him on Twitter: @Inigo_Alexander