Palestino, the Chilean club whose projection matters far beyond the pitch

South American side with deep Middle East ties aims to progress to group stage of premier club competition

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The home team unveiled new jerseys on Saturday. By half time at La Cisterna, an old, low-slung stadium in the southern suburbs of Santiago, Chile, those who wore it were entitled to regard it as a lucky charm. In their novel shirts, green-and-white hoops with a busy mosaic of badges and flags across the chest to signal various global alliances, Palestino had raced to a 3-0 lead over Cobreloa.

It was 5-0 by full time, an emphatic scoreline to start off Chile’s league season, an even better result given the players in the club’s third-choice kit had some second-string elements to their line-up. Key men had been rested in anticipation of a higher-stakes fixture three days later.

That game is on Tuesday, when La Cisterna anticipates cheering a club with a unique historical pedigree towards a threshold that only comes around once a decade, at best – progress to the group stage of the Copa Libertadores.

Hold onto the 2-1 first leg advantage they brought home from Portuguesa of Venezuela last week, and Palestino will be one qualifying round away from joining the likes of Brazil’s Flamengo and Fluminense and Argentina’s River Plate in the group phase of South America’s most prestigious club competition, its equivalent of the Champions League.

With that would come significant global projection. For Palestino, generally no more than middleweight performers in the top division of Chilean football, that sort of projection matters well beyond the pitch or on the annual accounts. The clue here is in the club’s name. It is explicit in the dominant paraphernalia all over the uncovered terracing at La Cisterna.

Above the stadium fly the flags of Chile and of Palestine. Parallel to the touchline hangs a 50-metre banner with the words ‘Palestino, More Than A Team, An Entire People’ in big white letters on a tricolour background of black, red and green.

Some supporters wear keffiyehs. Those dressed in replica team shirts carry the flag of Palestine on their chests, and those wearing certain older replicas of the club jersey have the outline of the map of Palestine, as it was pre-partition, on their backs.

The same map appears in silhouette on the sleeves of the current Palestino jersey in all its forms, be it the traditional white, with green, black and red trims or the new-look, occasional-use strip with its green hoops.

The association with Palestine stretches back over a century, Club Deportivo Palestino being perhaps the most conspicuous single institution representing the large population of Chileans of Palestinian heritage. They number up to half a million according to some estimates, a community built up through various waves of migration dating back to the 1800s. No region outside the Middle East has more citizens with Palestinian backgrounds than Chile.

And probably no sporting club outside the Mena region connects so strongly with Palestine than CD Palestino, variously nicknamed ‘Los Arabes’, or ‘Tino-Tino’. For a talented young Chilean footballer whose family tree extends its branches across the 8,000-plus miles from South America’s west coast to Palestine, Palestino are the natural club of choice.

But for the ambitious Chilean footballer, they have not always looked like the summit of professional aspiration. The domestic hierarchy is dominated by clubs like Colo-Colo and Universidad Catolic; Palestino have won the league just twice, most recently way back in 1978.

So to be within touching distance of the Libertadores group phase is a rare high. It’s been nine years since Palestino last kept that elite company. A strong run of form in the second half of the 2023 domestic season pushed them up to fourth place in Chile’s Primera Division and into pre-qualifying for the main pan-continental competition.

And as the team surged up the table, La Cisterna was staging powerful gestures of solidarity with those suffering and dying in the escalating conflict in Gaza. Last November, a section of seats were left empty for a home game, beneath a banner remembering victims of the war. “In memory of those no longer with us,” it read. A common chant at La Cisterna over the last five months has been ‘Gaza resiste, Palestina existe’. Gaza resists, Palestine lives.

We know we have an extra role and for a player it feels like you are really representing a national team
Bryan Carrasco, Palestino winger

“All of us, from the coaching staff to the players know we are part of a very special club,” said the Palestino head coach, Pablo ‘Vitamina’ Sanchez, ahead of the home showdown with Portuguesa. “It makes us proud that when we do well, we are giving some moments of happiness well beyond Chile and to people in different cities and towns where there is great suffering at the moment.

“And of course we are grateful for the support we always have from the Middle East but also from all over the world.” Viewing figures for live international broadcasts of Palestino matches and the club’s footprint on social media testify to Palestino’s broad following far outside their own continent.

“We see it in how social media brings us all these messages at all times of day and night,” notes Bryan Carrasco, the experienced Palestino winger, “and it gives us a real sense of pride to take that support across our continent into an international competition. We know we have an extra role and for a player it feels like you are really representing a national team.”

Carrasco has won senior caps for Chile. But in some cases, Palestino has been a platform for Chile-born players whose Palestinian ancestry makes them eligible to represent the land of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

Since Palestine was recognised by Fifa as a sovereign nation for tournament purposes in 1998, several Chilean dual-nationals have been called up. Three former Palestino players took part in Palestine’s successful qualifying for January’s Asian Cup, left-back Camilo Saldana going on to be part of the side that lost narrowly in the last-16 round to eventual champions Qatar.

Palestino’s current first-team squad mixes its Chileans with a generous smattering of Argentines, guided by an Argentine coach, Sanchez, whose playing career took him to the Netherlands and Spain and who has worked in three South American countries as a club manager.

He’s worldly and acknowledges his current employer has an out-of-the-ordinary reach: “It’s very unusual for a club this size to be so appreciated outside its own national borders.”

Palestino can now add significant numbers of Scots to their following, too. The new shirt the players premiered at the weekend was inspired by Celtic’s, the design referencing the Glasgow club’s crest, with a four-leaf clover on the chest above a Palestine flag.

The link is this: Celtic supporters, led by the Green Brigade group of fans, have a history of embracing pro-Palestine causes. The Scottish club were fined by Uefa for the fans’ huge display of Palestine flags around Celtic Park for November’s Champions League match against Atletico Madrid.

Palestino have had their issues with symbols and their sport’s authorities, Chile’s Football Association prohibiting a shirt design that had the 1947 map of Palestine outlined less discreetly than its current place as a small silhouette on the sleeve.

Elsewhere, spectators wearing Palestino shirts while attending matches in places as far away as the Parc des Princes in Paris or at last month’s Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast have in recent months reported stewards asking them to remove or cover the jerseys because of regulations outlawing political symbols in stadiums.

Win on Tuesday, and 11 eager footballers – plus a small, loyal band of travelling Chilean fans – will next month be proudly wearing their Palestino shirts in Paraguay or in Colombia, where the team would go for the next step of their Libertadores adventure.

After that, the group stage beckons, meaning several journeys across South America and sustained attention from continents far away in distance, but yoked to Palestino in spirit.

Updated: February 27, 2024, 4:25 AM