SANTIAGO: Palestino, a Chilean football team long down on their luck, are playing for the first time in 36 years in the Copa Libertadores, the top club tournament in Latin America, cheered on by ecstatic Palestinians worldwide.
The Santiago-based club’s qualification for the regional tournament after a more than three-decade drought has sparked a football frenzy among Chile’s Palestinian community, one of the largest outside the Middle East.
It has also won the club a rabid following among Palestinians worldwide who are elated to see the players take the pitch in the red, green, black and white of their people’s flag.
“Palestino triggers a lot of emotions. It represents a people without a voice,” said Anuar Majluf, director of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, an organization that represents the South American country’s 300,000 Palestinians.
“Keeping our Palestinian identity alive through sport, raising the Palestinian flag on the continent through sport, is simply a marvelous thing,” he said.
Thousands of kilometers (miles) away, in Ramallah, Palestinian fans are following the Chilean club as if it were their home team.
Despite the time difference, Mounzer Zahran rearranges his schedule to follow the Copa Libertadores action at home in the West Bank.
“Sometimes I stay up until 5:00am to watch the matches,” he said.
“To me, it’s important to support the team, because it carries the name of Palestine. And seeing the stands filled with Palestinian flags during the matches is priceless.”
His friend Daoud Nassar, a student in the West Bank town of Birzeit, beamed in his Palestino jersey — sent to him by a friend in Chile — as he described the club’s rabid following at his university.
“They are raising Palestine’s colors high. They represent it with pride,” he said.
The club’s fans include Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has called them the “pride of the Palestinian people”.
After the club defeated three-time tournament champions Nacional of Uruguay to advance to the second round, Abbas called the feat “a very good example that, when Palestinians are given their freedom, they can work miracles”.
“I call on all Palestinians and people who sympathize with our cause to support Palestino, because they are carrying our message of freedom, justice and peace wherever they play,” he told Chilean newspaper La Tercera.
The club have had rougher going in the second round, and are currently in third place in Group Five with four points.
But with two matches to go in the group stage they can still qualify for the knock-out round.
They are hoping to turn their fortunes around Tuesday when they face Venezuelan side Zamora, who are currently bottom of the group.
Palestino are the only professional team in the world to compete in FIFA-sanctioned matches wearing the colors of the Palestinian flag.
The jersey has caused controversy.
Two years ago, the club came out with a new jersey design that featured a map of Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948.
That drew an outraged reaction from Chile’s Jewish community, which complained to the local football federation.
The federation sanctioned the club, ruling that the map was a political statement.
But the club has defiantly continued including the map in less visible form. Currently, it features on the sleeve.
“Putting the map on the jersey is our way of showing our identity and our resistance in Chile as well as in Palestine,” said Nadia Garin, a 39-year-old descendant of Palestinian immigrants.
Palestino was founded as a club for the Palestinian immigrants who arrived in Chile by the thousands in the early 20th century, and made its professional debut in 1952.
Initially its players were all Arab, but over time its Palestinian identity has become more figurative than literal. Today none of the players come from an Arab background.
Still, the club is an important part of the Palestinian community’s identity. And a shared passion for football has helped pave the way for Palestinians’ broader acceptance in Chilean society, said community leader Majluf.
“The club was created because Chileans didn’t want Palestinians to play on their teams. So we created this team. Once we were able to play, little by little we were accepted and we managed to integrate into Chilean society,” he said.
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