While some Arab countries were celebrating their normalisation deals with Israel and Google was removing Palestine from its maps, Club Deportivo Palestino in Chile was celebrating its centenary. One hundred years of Palestinian identity in a South American country suggests the continued failure of Israel and its brutal military occupation to erase Palestinian identity, and obliterate the very existence of the Palestinian people.
One of the most unique football clubs in the world, Club Deportivo Palestino was founded in Chile on 20 August, 1920, by Palestinian immigrants in the city of Osorno, in the south of Chile. The club is known as Palestine’s “second national team”. On such a special occasion, a commemorative club jersey was produced with the legend, “More than a team, it is an entire people” written on it.
Speaking to MEMO, the president of the football club, Jorge Uauy, explained that the gold on the special jersey represents the 100th anniversary, and the years 1920-2020 are below the club crest. “Like our regular jersey, it has our motto written on the back, in Spanish and Arabic, and the map of Palestine on the sleeve.”
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the club to find innovative ways of celebrating this major anniversary. One of the most symbolic buildings in Santiago was illuminated with the new motto of the club, for example, and statements by former players were broadcast on important media channels across Chile. Furthermore, Club Deportivo Palestino launched the first virtual T-shirt museum in Chile where people can learn more about the history of the team. The tour includes a virtual walk through La Cisterna Stadium and the venue’s dressing rooms where you can see the different shirts that the team has worn over the past 40 years.
According to Anuar Majluf, the Executive Director of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, major events were planned but had to be shelved due to the virus. “So we had to celebrate through digital platforms. We have received greetings from many different Palestinian artists and intellectuals in Occupied Palestine and the Diaspora. Well-known players in Europe also sent greetings and congratulations to the club.”
From the very beginning Club Deportivo Palestino has always been more than a football club. It was created by the Palestinian community in Chile, which is home to the largest — and one of the oldest — outside the Arab world. Today, almost half a million people of Palestinian origin live there, out of Chile’s total population of 18 million. The so-called “Chilestinians” arrived from Palestine during the 19th century with another wave of migration in 1948, embodying a connection between the Middle East and Latin America.
“The club’s founders saw it as a way to keep Palestinian identity alive in the face of attempts to take it away after the [UN] partition plan for Palestine in 1947 and the 1948 Nakba,” explained Majluf.
Is Club Deportivo Palestino a Chilean or Palestinian club? It is a faithful reflection of the Palestinian presence in the country, which in the early years saw football as a way of integrating into Chilean society. As a Chilean club, it provides an opportunity for the oppressed people of Palestine to be seen and heard.
“Besides what we have achieved on the field,” Uauy pointed out, “we are honoured to be recognised around the world as the Chilean football team that represents Palestine. If you take a look at our kit, you will find our Palestinian identity all over it. Furthermore, if you go to one of our home games, you will see more than one Palestinian flag flying in our stadium.”
The club’s achievements have not been limited to domestic competitions. As Chilean champions and cup winners the team has played in international competitions for the past five years.
“When we have played in other South American countries, we have felt great warmth as well,” said Uauy. “And we know that people buy and wear our jersey abroad, because it represents Palestine, and it has done so for a hundred years. Moreover, we have seen our historic jersey in the hands of renowned people such as [musician and human rights campaigner] Roger Waters, Xavi Hernández and even Pope Francis, which is astonishing.”
The club was able to visit the occupied West Bank and play a match against the Palestine national team some years ago. It was a milestone in the club’s history. Everyone who participated still remembers that it was a very special journey. “We believe that our bond with Palestine, which has been strong from the beginning, should grow even stronger in the future and we would be delighted and honoured to visit Palestine again soon,” Uauy added.
In 2014, Club Deportivo Palestino replaced the number 1 on player’s jerseys with an elongated map of Palestine. However, Chile’s 18,000-strong Jewish community protested against such “political exploitation” of the sport. According to Uauy, the decision to use the map of historic Palestine instead of the number 1 was a way of paying homage to the land of their “Chilestinian” ancestors. “There was a complaint to the Chilean Football Association, and we were fined because — according to the FA rules — the numbers on the jersey have to be numerals. We have also been warned and fined because of the banners displayed by our supporters, but none of that changes what we are: a football club that represents the Palestinian people, in our homeland and the diaspora.”
In their efforts to undermine Palestinian identity, especially that of Club Deportivo Palestino, Israel and its allies have pointed out that the football was founded 28 years before the creation of the occupation state.
Anuar Majluf of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, has no time for such efforts. “When Zionists started going to Palestine to colonise our land, they said that it was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. However, this founding myth of Israel collapses immediately given the living Palestinian identity in Chile from the beginning of the 20th century, whose people founded major organisations that continue until this day.” There were clearly Palestinians before Israel was created in their land, and we remain Palestinians to this day.
The “Chilestinians” therefore provide a living example of the true strength of the collective Palestinian identity that existed before Israel was violently imposed on the Middle East, and continues to exist. Here in this South American country, the flag of Palestine is raised in a different stadium every weekend throughout the football season.
“We are now getting ready for the next hundred years,” concludes Club Deportivo Palestino President Jorge Uauy. “It is important to work hard in order to continue the legacy of our founders and achieve great things in the sporting arena.”