Political football: Chile’s Palestino 2023

On a cool autumn night in Santiago, Chile, a football stadium flies the Palestinian flag.

The Palestinian Sports Club, a professional football team that plays in the green, black, red, and white colors of the Palestinian flag, has hundreds of fans.

The team’s left sleeve has a Palestinian map from 75 years ago.

The 1920 Palestinian expat club is always political.

“More than a team, an entire people,” the club’s emblem says.

“We even have songs: ‘Gaza resists/Palestine exists’,” 29-year-old Rafael Milad told AFP.

“Palestino is 100 years old, older than the State of Israel,” he said, referencing the team’s moniker.

“Palestino is Palestine”

Christian Arabs from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahur migrated in Chile at the start of the 20th century and formed the largest Christian Arab population outside the Arab world, roughly half a million people.

35 of their ancestors became ministers or lawmakers after becoming successful textile businessmen.

The club debuted professionally 30 years after its 1920 founding.

Palestinians are Palestinians. “We are always concerned with the cause,” stated former club player Roberto Bishara.

The team won two national titles (1955 and 1978) and reached the 1979 Copa Libertadores semifinals.

After a complaint, the Chilean football organization fined and suspended the squad for changing the number 1 on their jersey to the elongated shape of Palestine before 1948 in 2014.

The players also sparked controversy by wearing the Middle Eastern keffiyeh on the field.

Ramallah fans watched a 2019 international match versus River Plate on huge screens.

The team no longer has Palestinian players. Nicolas Zedan left in 2021.

“All those Palestinians who are there having a hard time” are still represented by the team. “Each Palestino triumph… is a small joy among their daily suffering,” 49-year-old Palestinian lawyer Miguel Cordero told AFP.

Women too

Fans watch matches at a 4,600-member Santiago clubhouse when not at the stadium.

The venue has a mural of Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian map, and Arabic music.

The team’s most eccentric supporter is Francisco Munoz, 48.

He wears an Arab “sheikh” costume at the stadium and worships the team at home.

I witnessed Israelis kidnapping and executing people at a meeting. He claimed he sympathized with the cause there.

Sabas Chahuan, Palestino vice president, said “there is no confrontation (with the community)” in Chile, save with extremist sectors.

According to the UN, the Palestino team aggressively promotes its female division, unlike women in the occupied Palestinian territory, who may suffer backlash for gender equality activities.

I think of Palestinian ladies when playing football. “It would be nice if they had the freedom to express what they feel,” says Isabel Barrios, coordinator of the women’s squad founded over 25 years ago and league champion in 2015.

Chilean club funds Palestinian football schools for boys and girls.

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