Posted inGlobal Affairs


Illustration by Iona Shen

Club Deportivo Palestino – Palestine Sports Club – surely arouses a few questions at first glance. Where in Palestine is this All-Palestine outfit based? Why is their name in Spanish? CD Palestino is, in fact, found some 9000 miles away from Palestine, in the Chilean capital, Santiago.

A broader article about South American football and the Copa Libertadores’ clear edge over the Champions League is tempting, but some socio-historical background must be given to the diaspora at the club’s heart. 

Chile’s Palestinian community sits at approximately 500,000, the largest of its kind outside the Arab world. Migrants began to arrive from 1880 onwards, making biblical journeys from Beirut and Jaffa to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, often crossing the Andes on donkeys and mules to finally settle in Chile. They left the Ottoman Empire as it languished in economic stagnation and inter-communal violence. Migration from the Ottoman Empire to Latin America peaked at 1.2 million before the First World War, as a frantic recruitment drive caused yet more to trade the groves and orchards of the Levant for the pampas and plateaux of South America. Their Ottoman passports led many to be wrongly labelled turcos on arrival. Some consider this term pejorative. Some, such as the frothing Uruguayan man I met outside a Madrid bar, insist mi turco can be used affectionately, just like mi chino or mi negrito. Patrice Evra and I have our doubts. The misnomer continues to be used in the southern cone to this day. 

The majority of these early Palestinian migrants were Christian, easing their integration into a largely Catholic society. This is not to say that the process was straightforward. As fascism gained traction in Europe, South America’s elites condemned Palestinos as a cart-pushing middle minority, in a crass mimesis of their German and Italian cousins. The hubristic latifundistas held off investing in Chile’s mines and mills as they boomed through the 1930’s. Many of the maligned peddlers saw an opportunity and cashed in on the old elite’s apatía. They now count among the upper echelons of Chilean society. Chile’s Palestinian community were also, conversely, pivotal in the trade union movement which propelled Salvador Allende to the presidency in 1970. Palestinos have overcome prejudice to permeate the very fabric of Chilean society. It should come as no surprise, then, that Chile has consistently affirmed Palestine’s independence when called upon at the UN.

Founded in 1920, Palestino Football Club gradually accommodated more sports, becoming Club Deportivo Palestino in 1941. Its footballing outfit has brought it the greatest acclaim. CD Palestino, as all Chilean clubs, was amateur until 1952. They were then absorbed into the newly formed Segunda División, gaining promotion to the Primera División that same season. Triumph followed soon after, with a Campeonato Nacional in 1955, under the auspices of the charismatic Argentine Guillermo Coll. The team of the 1950’s was nicknamed the millionarios, the braggadocious galacticos of their day.

Decades of relative obscurity followed for CD Palestino. Recent success in the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana is notable, but it is surely trumped by the club’s impact off the pitch. The two are, though, very much interrelated. A 2016 quarter-final in the Sudamericana at El Monumental was an ample stage to unfurl a gigantic Palestinian Flag. The club tweeted a rousing message to accompany it: ‘Así nuestra hinchada recibe el tricolor’ (This is how our fans take up the tricolour). Palestino’s tricolour is the Pan-Arab red, white and black: the club’s footprint spans continents. Its success is watched attentively by an adoring hinchada in Hebron and Silwan as much as in Santiago.  

This unwavering solidarity with Palestine has not been without controversy. A design from the 2013/14 season, depicting the number 1 as a contiguous outline of the nation pre-1947, received widespread condemnation from Jewish organisations within Chile and elsewhere. It was eventually banned by the Chilean football federation, on the grounds of  “political, religious, sexual, ethnic and religious discrimination”. CD Palestino’s inherent role as a beacon for the Palestinian diaspora often means that the club’s sporting exploits cannot be separated from its political symbolism. 

The club’s assumed post of flagbearer for the Palestinian cause has again been displayed in its response to the recent events in Sheikh Jarrah. The middle-class suburb of East Jerusalem has seen property disputes dating back to 1876 reach fever pitch. Images of Israeli riot police storming aAl-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, confronting worshippers during the last 10 days of Ramadan, along with videos of settlers taking over residents’ houses, have prompted international outcry. CD Palestino responded as one would expect a club of such an ethos to respond. Before Palestino’s crunch match away against giants Colo-Colo last Sunday, players and staff donned Keffiyehs in a show of support for those protesting against perceived ethnic cleansing. The Tricolor won 2-1.