Palestino: A Home Away from Home

Words by: Nicolas VidalOmar walks with his hands in his pockets. It's already dark. It's cold in the West Bank the night of 14 December 2008. But Omar just left behind the most difficult obstacle: fortunately only lost two hours waiting at the checkpoint. A cough, the wrong intonation, opening or closing an eye beyond what is recommended, or simply the bad humor of the Israeli police officer, could have left him there for several hours. But not this time, so he lights a cigarette as intimate celebration. He is half an hour walk to get to Ramallah. The dry wind causes the cigarette to burn quickly. He thinks to light another one, but prefers to save it.

In the city, there are certain places where the clutter is too big for a Sunday night. He goes towards the restaurant Nazim. Outside the eatery there’s movement, people arguing, some are screaming, others gesticulating with their hands. There are even insults. But Omar is not concerned because he already has his ticket in hand. He steps in firmly but respectfully, among those calling at the door. The place is full. He regrets being so late. He will have to watch the game on his feet, leaning against the wall. However, when Ruben Selman gives the starting whistle, everything is forgotten. Several fans remove their shirts:  the number 25 of Bishara is undoubtedly most popular. Omar can not believe it when Selman gives a penalty in favor of Colo-Colo sending off Felipe Nuñez, the goalkeeper. Goal for Lucas Barrios. He can’t understand the insults in spanish from an enraged old man sitting in the front row. But he can imagine. The majority cursed in arabic. And then when Selman sends off Bishara, Omar really rages. Being robbed by your own conational feels unbelievable.

Palestino is playing with nine players. Occasionally, the small Arab supporter section is shown, cornered by the side of the main stand of their stained white stadium. They believe. Omar gets excited with a counter attack of Paco Ibanez but its saved by Muñoz. They're all standing. The smoke has formed a haze that obscures the view of the screen situated at the end, but anyway, it’s enough. The smoke continues to below over the crowd. There are only ten minutes left. And they shout, they all shout at Paco Ibanez, forgetting his cramps, he grabs the ball in the middle of the pitch and swings leaving Luis Mena on the grass, and runs with the ball towards Miguel Riffo dribbling to left he passes two, and now stands alone against “the Tiger” Muñoz and shoots, at the near post. Omar goes mad, jumping, hugging and kissing everyone.

They had achieved an historical result in the first final of that championship of 2008. They lost the second leg, but that’s another story.

The Only Club of its Kind

Sport Club Palestino is unique in the world. There is no other club with the same name or which flies the Palestinian flag so freely, and all of this occurs 13,000 kilometres from their “homeland”. The club owes its existence to the fact that the Palestinian community in Chile is the largest in the world, outside of the Middle East. It is believed that the population of Palestinian descendants in Chile is around 500,000, their ancestors arriving approximately a century ago, standing out as successful business people that today are the owners of communication companies, supermarkets and factories.

However, Palestino is different to the other colonial football clubs in Chile, and perhaps around the world, due to their claims for independence, which although hidden, are intrinsic to their very existence. Union Española and Audax Italiano, for example, are also colonial football clubs in Chile, founded by immigrants, but neither of them harbour claims for independence as part of their natural fabric. There are others that may point to Atlanta in Argentina, which has an important Jewish influence, however Atlanta wasn’t founded by Jews and doesn´t have a name or an emblem that evokes images of Israel or the Jewish people. Palestino can also be distinguished from clubs such as Athletic de Bilbao, which is located in the geographic heart of the Basque territory and its claims for independence; Palestino is not located in Palestine, but on the other side of the world.

The shirt and the map

Palestino is not involved in politics and there is no nationalistic indoctrination for their players or officials. In general, Palestino has taken care to strictly brand the club as a sporting club, steering clear from politics; well, almost always - there were a couple times in recent history where this did not hold true.

The first example was in 2002 where a little controversy was stirred when the goalkeeper, Leonardo Cauteruchi, wore a shirt displaying a drawing of the map of Palestine on his chest. However, the situation in 2014 was different, as it was an institutional decision. When commencing the Chilean Championship during January (which may sounds ridiculous), Palestino released a new playing shirt that replaced the number one with a silhouette of a map of Palestine according to the original boundaries that existed before the creation of the state of Israel under United Nations resolution. Palestino managed to play three games in the new shirt before the Jewish community created an uproar.

The matter reached the international press, causing an enraged Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry to call and inform Israel and its diplomats in Chile to encourage them to express their discontent with the provocation. The simple symbol of a map on the shirt of a humble – sometimes the most humble – club in the Chilean first division was on the front page around the world.

With much commotion, Palestino was economically sanctioned by the disciplinary tribunal of the Chilean football association (Tribunal de Disciplina de la Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional) and required to replace the map with a more traditional number one. The club president, Fernando Aguad, refused to budge and, rather than replacing the map with the number one he simply moved it to the front of the shirt, where it remains to this day. The decision to replace the number one with the Palestinian map was a complete success. Even though they weren’t able to use that shirt during an official match, they could sell it. Sales of the shirt increased more than 300% and the club received orders from France, Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Colombia and, of course, the Middle East.

This incident showed the tremendous symbolic power of Palestino and also justified the club´s institutional decision not to become involved in politics, knowing that if they persisted and became involved in politics the club would quickly find themselves at the heart of a grand conflict. Palestino has the name, the colours and the Palestinian flag, which flies freely at the home stadium (Estadio Municipal de La Cisterna), but the club has decided to not directly involve themselves in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though they know that thousands of Palestinians follow them through the internet and satellite television from the occupied territories.

The Origin

History requires us to return to the Ottoman Empire, where in 1517 the Turks conquered Jerusalem, causing Palestine to fall within their dominion. The Turkish were – in the vast majority – Islamic, and for hundreds of years there was a climate of tolerance and respect for religious minorities (such as Jews and Christians). However, at the end of the Ottoman Empire and around the time of World War 1, persecution against orthodox Christians in Palestine began. It was at that time that thousands of Palestinian Christians decided to leave Palestine and, after a length journey, settled in Chile. Why Chile? It appears that it was because it was located on the other side of the world and they were welcomed with open arms. The curious thing is that these palestinians arrived with their only passport they had: the turkish. That’s why in Chile we call them turkish, and they did not seem to like that nickname at all.

Palestino was registered as a football club in 1920, in the city of Osorno (today a town of 150,000 in central-southern Chile). The club spent more than 30 years in the amateurism, with a team comprising mostly of Arabs, until 1952 when the club was invited to join the birth of the Chilean Second Division. Palestino made to the final of the second division championships in that first year where they defeated Rangers de Talca on penalties (4-2) in the Braden Cooper Co. stadium in Rancagua, and were duly promoted to the first division of Chilean football.     

It was then that the local Palestinian textile entrepreneurs began to enthusiastically support the club with large sums of money and the stadiums started to fill up. This allowed a large amount of money to be spent on developing a strong team, which in 1955, included the Argentinian Roberto Coll, who was transferred from River Plate, club of other great players such as José Manuel Moreno and Ángel Labruna, both Argentinian national players and idols in their home country. Palestino were champions of the Chilean first division in 1955 for the first time in their history.

Then arrived the great team of the seventies, driving the most famous period in the club’s history. The captain was the greatest Chilean players of all time, Elías Ricardo Figueroa Brander. However, Elías wasn´t alone, the team included Oscar Fabianni, Rodolfo Dubó, Edgardo Fuentes, Manuel Araya and many others that made the Palestino team of the seventies one of the best Chilean teams of all time. They were the first division champion in 1978, and still hold the national record of 44 undefeated games.

Let us imagine for a moment what would have happened in Palestine if they had been able to watch this team from 1978 on the big screen; how they would have enjoyed it, forgetting the occupation, the war, terrorism, repression and simply enjoying watching the greats Elías and Fabianni wearing the shirt of their beloved Palestine.

La Cisterna

The sound of the players shaking hands with each other in the middle of the pitch before the start of the game, the beautiful sound of the impact of a long ball from Leonardo “Leo” Valencia in search of a strike from Renato “the Shark” Ramos. The instructions of Darío Melo to Diego Rosende for protecting their zone, clearly saying “watch your back, for fuck sake!” and the footsteps of Jason Silva when he is breaking to try dribble against a rival defender. The silence of Palestino’s home stadium, La Cisterna, allows one to hear beautiful sounds of football. There are few people. There is support, but it is more an individual-type of support that can be heard in the curses when the referee makes a decision in favor of the opponent.  Those that curse in that manner are mainly those that sit in the small covered grandstand. They have a privileged location and their curses are given greater resonance by the roof. For the match against Magallanes in the Chile Cup there were no more than 300 spectators.

At first glance, the Palestinian presence is most evident in the grandstand. In the rest of the stadium there are many – you could say the majority – that are not of Arabic descent, but after a few minutes of conversation it becomes clear that they have a firm commitment to the Palestinian cause. Many of today’s fans were drawn in by the success of 1978 campaign. All children are, by nature, impressionable, and choosing a football team is the most important choice. Many people change partners, religion, political opinion and sexual orientation, however, to change football teams is another thing. Those children, who grew up in awe of the best player in the history of Chile, never imagined that they would end up watching their team in a half-empty stadium in La Cisterna. But, they continue to do so, waiting anxiously during the week, as if they were still children in 1978, so when Sunday arrives they can sit on the stone steps of their stadium and watch their team in action. These fans have never seen Palestine, but the love they have for their team deeply strengthens their solidarity with the Palestinian cause.  Just as there are thousands of Palestinian descendants who are now fans of Chilean powerhouse clubs such as Colo-Colo or Universidad de Chile, there are also a handful of fans who have become adoptive Palestinians.

Palestine and Palestino

Roberto Bishara´s whole body was in pain, for 26 hours he had been on a plane that had been delayed in its journey from Santiago to Tel Aviv. We are talking about 2008, in the middle of Palestino´s epic championship campaign, the final which would end up being seen by hundreds of fans in Ramallah on the other side of the world. Bishara was walking through the airport in Tel Aviv, slightly limping with the pins and needles that are typical of those who undertake the transatlantic journey in economy class. It was the first time that he had gone to play for the Palestinian national team. The Faisal Al- Husseini stadium, just 600 meters from the wall that divides Israel and the West Bank, was holding its first game in two years after being destroyed by an Israeli shelling. It was, no less, the first Palestinian national match being played in Palestine. The rival was Jordan, or at least that is what Bishara was trying to explain to the Israeli security forces during two hours of questioning in a dark room at Ben Gurion airport. Bishara, who would one year later became captain of the Palestinian national team, had to leave behind his suitcase and his camera, but finally he was permitted to leave the airport so that he could play in the historic match the ended in a 1-1 draw.

Although there are many Chileans that have played for the Palestinian national team, Edgardo Abdala, Leonardo Zamora, Alexis Norambuena, Patricio Acevedo, Pablo Abdala and Matías Jadue, among others, but none of them are as emblematic as Roberto “Tito” Bishara. Even Roberto Kettlun, who played more than 20 games for the Palestine national team and played with Hilal Al-Quds in the local league, does not match the figure of Tito Bishara. Kettlun told us recently: “many times equipment that was sent to us by FIFA was blocked, together with specialist coaches and sporting manuals. When we tried to bring in coaches and trainers to provide us with support, often they were stopped at the border and prevented from entering. Further, we organised tournaments but were forced to send back half of our opponents as they were not permitted to enter.”

More than rival defenders, the greatest enemy of the Palestinian national team are the Israeli check points that limit the freedom of movement within the Palestinian territories. As Bishara tells, many players miss training as they are detained for hours without reason. However, worse than the restrictions on movement is the ever present threat of death. Bishara recounts a day when a friend of his arrived crying, but it was a quiet sobbing, without outward scandal – his grandmother had been killed when a bomb landed on her house. Bishara couldn´t believe what he was hearing, but the others simply got on with training the following day as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. As Bishara states, “I never got over the sensation of playing in the middle of a war zone, but the others seem to be accustomed to it”.

When the Palestinian national team play, the public display a great level of enthusiasm as everyone is aware of the tremendous value in the mere existence of the team, meaning that, sometimes, they celebrate goals with more euphoria than the fans of other nations. A Palestinian goal in our stadium sounds like more than a hundred cannons, once said Bishara. In that stadium, although fragile, in shattered Palestine, you can see – in many places – the shirts of Palestino being proudly worn, with the Palestinian map sitting on the back.