A small South American fútbol club shows pride in its Palestinian roots and feeds hope to fans in the battered motherland
The exploits of a small Chilean soccer team are filling the Palestinian people with pride as their national colors set out for fútbol glory in this year’s Copa Libertadores in South America.
Meet Palestino, a 95-year old club in Chile’s Primera División that has been playing some quality fútbol lately.
Last weekend they defeated Uruguay’s Nacional de Montevideo in an epic two-game playoff to qualify for the first time in 36 years to the group stage of the tournament, where they will face Argentinian powerhouse Boca Juniors.
While los Xeneizes can brag to be la mitad más uno (a half plus one) in their Buenos Aires stadium of La Bombonera, they cannot claim the hearts of an entire nation as their Chilean rivals do.
Despite playing thousands of miles away, many think of Palestino as Palestine’s second national team, an idea the club feeds proudly representing its roots and showing support for their distant brothers and sisters.
“On the field we’re 11, but off the field we are an entire people,” two young men say in unison in a youtube video that presents various people in Bethlehem and Jerusalem talking about their support for the Chilean club.
“The Palestinian people support Palestino in Chile because our people deserves joy,” says another man. “They give us joy because sports are part of the revolution.”
Randomness has nothing to do with the existence of Palestino. Chile is home to the largest community of Palestinians outside the Middle East. Their bonds, once thin because of the entire world between them, are growing stronger thanks to fútbol.
Los Árabes, one of their several nicknames, don on their shirt the black, white, green, and red of the Palestinian flag. The Bank of Palestine has been the shirt sponsor since 2010, and the financial institution just added 20 years to the agreement.
“This is not a matter of business for us. It is a commitment with our identity,” Hashim Shawa, Bank of Palestine president, told the press after announcing the extension. “We want to send a message to the diaspora community in Chile and show them we support our identity beyond business.”
The club welcomes that kind of support because it doesn’t shy away from taking the struggle on to the field and sometimes paying for it. Last year, Palestino was fined $15,000 after the team replaced the number one from their jerseys with maps of the Palestine that stretched before the Mediterranean Sea in 1947.
One year later, in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians would be forced to flee their own homes, never to be allowed back, as the State of Israel was created on that same land with the approval of the United Nations.
The team won three matches playing with Palestine on their back until the league, pressured by the Jewish community in Chile, fined Palestino and banned them from using the map on their shirts.
Irony could not escape this. FIFA, futbol’s global governing body, recognizes Palestine as a federation –a country– since 1998, contrary to the UN that is yet to decide on President Mahmoud Abbas’ 2011 application for official recognition.
When FIFA relaxed its citizenship rules, it allowed for Palestine to reach out to the diaspora. Since 2002, several Palestino players have been called to play for the national team in World and Asian cup qualifiers.
Palestine has not made it to the World Cup, but they appeared in their first Asian Cup earlier this year in Australia. They were eliminated in the group stage.
Some of the futbolistas that have reconnected with the motherland of their elders have been outspoken about their mission on the field, like midfielder Roberto ‘Tito’ Bishara, who made history in 2008 as the captain of the national team when Palestine’s first-ever home game, a 1-1 draw with Jordan, in a stadium built in the West Bank.
“It was more than a game, that’s for sure. And I also believe that it is recognition to the Palestinian State. Fútbol is a sport that unites, and not that divides. A Palestinian goal in our own stadium has more power than a hundred cannon shots,” Bishara told Spanish newspaper AS in 2008 (rescued by charlatecnica.cl).
It was Bishara who, last weekend, shared a video on his Facebook account of Palestino’s celebration after they made it through the knockout despite losing 2-1 against Uruguayan classic side Nacional de Montevideo.
Media has taken notice of Palestino’s popularity in the Middle East. As the team embarked in their South American mission, Al Jazeera, the largest Arabic language network, announced it will broadcast all of the Árabes’ games in la Copa Libertadores.
In a written interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera, President Abbas praised Palestino after their recent achievements and for spreading, according to him, “our message of freedom, justice and peace wherever they play.
“The first we have to highlight is the club’s nature, because they have chosen to be more than just another fútbol side. They are the pride of our country and a distinguished ambassador of our nation. Palestino has become a symbol for all Palestinians around the world,” Abbas said.
Palestino shares Grupo 5 de la Copa Libertadores with Argetina’s Boca Juniors, Uruguay’s Montevideo Wanderers and Venezuela’s La Furia Llanera del Zamora FC. Los Tricolores will host Boca Juniors at 4:45 p.m. today at Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna.