The Crimean War of the 1850s, World War II and the Arab-Israel Wars in the mid 1900s resulted in many Palestinians taking refuge in neighbouring countries like Jordan and Syria. But, many are not aware of the fact that approximately 500,000 individuals somehow made their way to the Chilean capital of Santiago, to escape persecution and to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Santiago, and wider Chile, soon became home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Middle East.
Fast forward to present times and there’s a unique club that was formed in the 1920s with the intention of benefitting – through sport – Santiago’s growing Palestinian community, fairly similar to the thought process behind Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic was shaped by Brother Walfrid.
In one way, it’s possible to consider Club Deportivo Palestino as the first football club ever founded by refugees globally, with its name intentionally pinpointing their Palestinian roots. Since then, the club had added two national (Primera Division) titles in 1955 and 1978, two Copa Chiles in 1975 and 1977, and a two Primera B titles, in 1952 and 1972. In current times, though the club has not lived up to its exaggerated expectations, the fan base continues to grow – primarily because of their continued devotion and support for the Palestinian cause, now thousands of miles away.
The club’s home colors include the Palestinian colors of red, green and white, and it would not be surprising for a neutral to observe Palestinian flags and Keffiyeh, a traditional headdress, adorning supporters during home games at the Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna stadium.
Roberto Kettlun, an ex-Palestino player of Palestinian origin, and an ex Palestinian national team player and current Hilal Al-Quds star, has only good things to say about his two seasons spent at the club.
“I played for two seasons with Palestino club, it was an amazing experience, professionally and also personally, it brought me closer to my origins, and also to the Palestinian national team which provided a platform for me to move to Greece.”
Every time the players step on to the pitch, there is a feeling of not only Chilean eyes but millions of others abroad watching them play. Twenty-seven-year-old Chilean radio commentator and Musician Sebastián Manríquez says: “CD Palestino stands not only for a football club in La Cisterna, but for a well-respected community in Chile, for the land where their founders and fans’ ancestors came from, and for people who are suffering maybe the most inexplicable consequences of an almost endless conflict in the Middle East.
“Palestino, in opposite to the other diaspora football clubs in our country, plays every match with their minds in the field and their hearts kilometers away, knowing that an even larger and greater amount of fans are supporting them from the distance despite the horror and the sadness that every day Palestinians suffer in their everyday lives. And having that in mind, it’s not uncommon that every match against Palestino becomes a hard, fierce and battled confrontation.”
“Fans are double fans, because despite football, here there is an entire country waiting to here for victories outside the territories in order to bring pride, happiness and pride into this occupied territories,” says Kettlun.
And to this accord, Palestinians across the globe, those with interest in football or without, have a similar and growing appreciation for the club.
“I thought it was really cool to have such an established side be part and parcel of the sporting scene in South America. There are only about 11 million of us in the world so to have a club carry our name on the other side of the globe is pretty neat,” says Bassil Mikdadi, a Palestinian football blogger and creator of Footbol Palestine.
The question is: how and what does that translate into for the Palestinians? Interestingly, it’s a lot considering the fact that they can hold on to a common theme of solidarity.
This connection between Palestine and Chile has also led to several Palestinian-Chileans, who often don’t speak a single word of Arabic, travelling 8,000 miles to the West Bank to participate in the various World Cup qualifiers since the nation’s Football Association opened up to the concept. It was, of course, not a consideration for the FA initially as restrictions in player movements between Gaza and West Bank was making it difficult for Palestine to field a regularly line up, let alone schedule training sessions within the country or abroad. The only option was to bring in players that would have even the slightest of ancestral relations to the country.
And so it began. Many fans in the Middle East would never associate given names such as Patricio and Roberto as Palestinian. But these names have become part of a trend that is having a strong influence on the national team. Certainly, there are players who were given Middle Eastern nationalities just so they could be part of the national team. The most prominent examples include a Qatari striker of Uruguayan decent, Sebastián Soria, and the former Qatari-Brazilian rebel striker, Emerson Sheik, aka Márcio Passos de Albuquerque, now back in Brazil with Flamengo. But this is about more than just football. In the case of Palestinian-Chileans, there exists a bond that ties them back to their homeland.
It all started with Nicola Shahwan, a descendant of Palestinian immigrants in Chile, who was hired to manage the national team in 2002. Nicola did not arrive alone; he brought with him a group of Chileans that were approved by FIFA to represent the nation based on their Palestinian descent.
Today, the national team enjoys the technical elegance of the Chileans through the likes of Alexis Norambuena, Jonathan Cantillana and Daniel Kabir Mustafa. Their style of play directly complements the physical strength of the locally based players. This, along with several other factors, has taken Palestine to their current position of 130th in the FIFA World Rankings.
However, CD Palestino’s rise in the global mainstream can largely be attributed to a kit dispute in 2014, which gained instant PR among the many that show camaraderie with the Palestinians. In January 2014, the team walked on to the pitch wearing kits with the No. 1 depicting the 1947 map of Palestine, before the creation of Israel. It drew loud nuances along with appreciation from various parts of the world.
According to a complaint by Patrick Kiblisky, the club president of Chilean club Ñublense: “The figure 1 was replaced by a map of the historic Palestine, before the United Nations resolution of November 20, 1947, which established a Jewish state and an Arab state. This map, which does not take into account the present state of Israel, is a symbol for the Palestinian people. These circumstances mean that its use constitutes a political matter.”
CD Palestino was eventually fined approximately $1,300 by the Chilean FA and was forced to change the design of the jersey.
“It’s impossible to deny that the Tino Tino [Palestino] – as we Chileans call it – is a club like no other in the league. Most of Chilean fans recognize the contributions of Palestinian diaspora in Chile and the historical background that Palestino seek to represent. The majority of the Chilean population supports the Palestinian cause, and because of that I would say, despite the fact that Palestino is not one of the most popular teams in the tournament, their fans are the most respected and supported ones in the Chilean football.
“This respect comes even by fans of their main rivals: the Spanish diaspora’s club Unión Española and the Italian diaspora’s team Audax Italiano. As an example, in the middle of the controversy about replacing the number 1 with the Palestinian map, followers from almost all Primera División participants expressed their support to the club, including fans of Ñublense – club which denounced Palestino, who expressed their disagreement with the demand made by the club’s president, Alex Kiblisky, suggesting that Kiblisky’s Jewish background was determinant in that decision,” says Sebastián
And to the question if Palestino really aims to support the Palestinian cause? According to Roberto: “Yes it does. Specially this last management, they have been very active in our cause, very brave with certain things, and also very patriotic to be daily concern in what is happening on here.”
Though the club accepted the fine and agreed to change the uniform, the message on the club Facebook page was clear. “For us, free Palestine will always be historical Palestine, nothing less.”
It was a clear message from one of the most interesting, politically-charged and unique clubs in world football.