In a dusty and quiet neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Santiago lies La Cisterna Stadium. Humble and unremarkable among the city’s many arenas—at least to the uninitiated—one thing does set La Cisterna apart. From the entrance hall to its plastic seats and concrete bleachers, the stadium is covered in the colors of the Palestinian flag: black, white, red and green.
Once visitors move past the open metal gates and get a proper view of the stadium from the dusty parking lot, the visual overtones become particularly hard to miss. In a more recent addition, an all-black map of historic Palestine, including present-day Israel, breaks the monotony of the white edifice below the team’s logo.
Inside the main hall by the cafeteria, where people hang around or pass through before and after matches, large posters have been hung on the walls. One of these posters depicts a group of people posing in front of the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem. Another shows Arab Idol winner, Mohammed Assaf, performing on stage. They all feature the words “orgullo palestino,” “Palestinian pride.” On the red, white, and green concrete bleachers across the field, fans dressed in similar colors wave banners and Palestinian flags while shouting insults to the opposing team.
Since its reconstruction in 1988, La Cisterna has been home to the soccer team, Club Deportivo Palestino, popularly known simply as Palestino and often referred to affectionately as Tino-Tino, Los Árabes, or Los Baisanos. Home to a team whose name translates literally as ‘Palestinian,’ La Cisterna is unlike any other sports arena in the Chilean capital.
A Hundred Years of Palestino
As impressive as the stadium’s visual commitment to Palestine is, there is more to Palestino than mere show. Archival documents uncovered in 2014 show that the institution, known then as Club Sportivo Palestina, was established by Palestinian immigrants in Santiago as early as March 25, 1916, more than a hundred years ago.
By the 1920s the team had changed its name to Club Deportivo Palestino and featured a number of seasoned, professional players. It was not until 1952, however, that Palestino made it into Chile’s second division, going on to win the league three years later.
While experiencing many ups and downs over the ensuing decades, Palestino has now solidified its position among the top teams in Chile’s first or “primera” division. Last year, its women’s team even beat the country’s most popular club, Colo-Colo, to become first division champions.
The story of Palestino is one of many layers. Athletic achievement has, of course, been important both to those directly involved with the team and those following passionately from the sidelines. For many of these people, the importance of this success has largely been tied to the team’s role in representing Palestinians in Chile. When Palestino was established, it was perhaps first and foremost intended as a gathering point for Palestinian immigrants and their descendants. Since then, it has become an important way to promote and generate positive attention for the Palestinian community in Chile.
Throughout its existence, Palestino has embodied the old and lasting bond between Chilean Palestinians and their ancestral homeland. While migration from Palestine to Chile started as early as the 1880s, it substantially expanded in the first decades of the twentieth century. With the dawn of World War I and the impending demise of the Ottoman Empire, Christian families from Bethlehem and the neighboring villages of Beit Sahour and, in particular, Beit Jala, began sending their sons abroad so they could avoid serving on the front-lines. In the years that followed, more Palestinians immigrated to Chile, establishing what has become one of the most remarkable Palestinian diasporic communities in the world.
Palestino is not just about personal ties and family histories, however. The club’s fan base includes at least as many non-Palestinians as those with Palestinian ancestry. Similarly, while originally Palestino was comprised only of players with Palestinian roots, the club’s Palestinian-Chilean soccer players have dwindled in numbers over the years. The club still, however, makes efforts to ensure that Palestinian players are represented on its team, including recruiting West Bank player Shadi Shaban, in July 2016.
No matter their background, Palestino’s fans all seem to have embraced a commitment to Palestine as part and parcel of their fandom. Staunch in their support for their team, they are also dedicated to the team’s pledge to represent Palestine and the Palestinian people. As a popular slogan goes, Palestino is “more than a team”—it’s “an entire people.”
A Controversial Change
At times, Palestino’s ties to the old country have generated political controversy. In January 2014, following an earlier decision made by Palestino’s board of directors, changes to the design of the players’ uniform were unveiled. Among other details, an all-black map of historic Palestine was placed on the back of the shirts—the same that was later to be replicated on the white walls of La Cisterna.
The move infuriated Chile’s Jewish community. Some of its more prominent public figures took to different media channels to criticize the move as a provocative lack of recognition and respect for Israel. A very public debate ensued. Not long thereafter, Chile’s national soccer association declared that the uniforms did not comply with the association’s rules, and Palestino adopted more traditional uniform design instead.
The controversy had very tangible effects. In its wake, the crowds at La Cisterna seemed to grow on game days, as Palestinian-Chileans took to social media to mobilize their friends and family to demonstrate their support for the team. The manufacturer of the team’s maligned uniform also reported sales orders from all corners of the world, coming from people who wanted to sport the jersey themselves. The shirt, which had clearly become a visual marker of support for both Palestino and Palestine, was bringing the team a much wider and more global audience.
For Palestino, uniform designs and player recruitment are more than simple expressions of solidarity with Palestine and its people. For many of Palestino’s players, management, and fans, the relationship runs much deeper.
Palestino’s former defensive player, Roberto Bishara, embodies this reality. Having played for Palestino for fourteen years before leaving the club in 2014, Bishara has become an icon for Palestino fans. Born in Santiago to Palestinian parents, Bishara joined Palestino in 2001. In 2002, he was offered and accepted a place on the Palestinian national team, kicking off an eight-year stint as part of the lineup for Palestine—an experience he has described as “like being at home.”
These sorts of ties between Palestino and Palestine reflect the deep-rooted connection between Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora. At the same time, efforts by Palestino’s management to position the club as aware and actively engaged in representing the Palestinian people in Chile has only attracted more fans—not least of all in Palestine.
Following the team’s 2015 qualification for the prestigious Copa Libertadores tournament, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a statement to Chilean newspaper La Tercera, calling on “all Palestinians and people who sympathize with our cause to support Palestino because they are carrying our message of freedom, justice and peace everywhere they play.”
Since then, Palestino’s ties with Palestine have become even more overt. The Bank of Palestine has been the team’s main sponsor since 2010 and has plans to open its first Latin American branch in the Chilean capital. A complete remodeling of La Cisterna, financed primarily by the bank, is also in the works.
More Than Soccer
For Shadi Shaban, the intimate relationship between the Chilean soccer team and his homeland is clear. As he expressed in a video that was posted on Palestino’s Facebook page, “I promise I will give everything to the club to make our people in Palestine happy.”
Although a new addition to the Palestino roster, Shaban has been to Chile before. Earlier this year in January, he traveled to Santiago with Hebron-based team Ahli Al-Khalil for a friendly match with Palestino. At the time, Ahli Al-Khalil’s manager, Ibrahim Mansour, took the opportunity to explain to the Chilean press that soccer in Palestine is about much more than sport. As he put it, “we play football first and foremost to say that we’re alive.”
Recognizing the precariousness of life in Palestine, the political potential of sport, and the particular plight of Palestinian soccer players, who regularly face a variety of obstacles, Palestino offers a distinct Palestinian presence on the field, even if that field is located thousands of miles away from conflict and occupation.
Over the course of a few years, a team with a fascinating history has become a force to be reckoned with and is changing the dynamics of sports and politics. It seems a given that the bond between Palestino and Palestine will only grow stronger. In the words of Roberto Bishara, “Palestino is Palestine, and Palestine is Palestino.”