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Roaring Red Front ‘More than a team’ - the history behind Palestino football club

THIS is the first of what will be a fortnightly column from The Roaring Red Front, covering a fixture involving one of our leftist/anti-fascist teams, and also providing some background to the teams involved and the politics that drive their supporters. You can see the book that inspired the column and the Football Supporters' Charters at www.theroaringredfront.com

Palestino 1-0 Colo Colo
by Stewart McGill
La Cisterna, Santiago de Chile

When you see a game based in Santiago between one team named after Palestine and another named after a famous Mapuche chieftain who had some successes against the Spanish invader, you realise (i) why Latin America is the home of magical realism and (ii) something of the ambiguity that characterises these Mestizo lands.

Watching on TV also reminded me of the cleft between appearance and reality. With the Andes as a backdrop, Palestino’s La Cisterna stadium offers one of the more stunningly beautiful settings of any football arena.

I have been to La Cisterna — it’s a tough part of south Santiago that features street buskers that juggle machetes among their hands and feet. I’m a pretty robust traveller and individual, but I was glad when the cab turned up.

The history

Many Palestinians fled during the Crimean war of the 1850s due to fears of Russia taking over the Holy Land. Some found their way to Santiago de Chile and established a strong community there, attracting other Palestinians after the traumas of the world wars.

Chile is believed to be home to the largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world, numbering at about 500,000 people mostly from the historically Christian towns of Belen, Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour.

The vast majority of Palestinians in Chile are Christians, despite Palestine being majority Muslim, but this in no way diminishes the national feeling of Palestino fans. Indeed, many prominent members of the Palestinian resistance have been Christian. And the support for the cause is non-sectarian, there is a painting of the al-Aqsa mosque on the walls of the Palestino stadium in southern Santiago, the third-most holy site in Islam.

Colo Colo are the biggest club in Chile by far. It has been suggested to me that they are a club of the right, but with around 42 per cent of the Chilean population being Colo Colo fans, this is a bit of generalisation.

The supporters also expressed support for Palestine and the cause, along with the fans of Universidad de Chile, after a political scandal around Palestino’s new shirt in 2014.

One of Palestino’s main priorities is to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and to continue to seek freedom, justice and peace. 

In January of that year, it was decided to add to the club’s traditional red, green and black colours an alteration to the number design on the back of the shirts: the “1” was to be shaped like the outline of Palestine before 1948, when Israel was created.

Jewish groups in Chile and elsewhere were outraged and saw the act as deliberate provocation. The Israeli government stated that the kit amounted to “provocation.”

Palestino were fined after the complaint. 

The surrounding controversy provoked acts of solidarity from other Chilean clubs, notably from the two biggest teams, Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile. 

Palestino played them both shortly after the eruption of the shirt controversy. Universidad de Chile’s home fans held up a banner with the Palestinian flag that read “Palestina Libre,” while Colo Colo supporters unfurled an enormous banner featuring the Palestinian flag on one end, the Mapuche flag on the other, and the map of historic Palestine filling in for the letter “i” in the word Resiste printed in bold in the centre. 

Chilean football can be very tribal and antagonistic, but this display anticipated the unity and solidarity displayed during the recent Chilean uprising, the Estallido: football fans are by no means all a bunch of incorrigible tribalists doomed by their stupidity to internecine violence through the power of the football circus.

Football matters in Chile, six days after the start of the uprising began against the neoliberal government on October 18 2019, Colo Colo fans organised a march in favour of the Estallido. Even though it was organised by the Colo Colo crew, fans of various teams turned up and there was no problem.

A picture of fans together wearing the colours of Colo Colo, Universidad de Chile and Universidad Catolica went viral. These fans do not get along and are famous for battering each other, the picture was instrumental in telling Chileans that something special was happening in the country.

Colo Colo do remain “Chile’s team,” however. In 1973 Chile was going through political chaos and conflict that resulted in the brutal golpe de estado of the butcher Pinochet.

Colo Colo were one of the few forces for unity in the country and their run to the final of the South American Cup, La Copa Libertadores, was followed by all. It was so important that some claim it delayed the date of the armed forces’ takeover.

President Salvador Allende urged the team to keep on winning, reminding them that all of Chile had their hopes pinned on them. (They eventually lost to Independiente in a series of games that remain hugely controversial.)

The game

Colo Colo have won 32 Chilean championships compared to Palestino’s one. But as a Palestino fan, I was hopeful about this one. Palestino are having a good season, and with this being the first game after the escalation of the crisis in Palestine through the insurrection in Gaza, I expected Palestino’s players to bring some Garra Charrua to La Cisterna. (Garra Charrua, the claw of the Charrua, a tough indigenous tribe; it refers to bravery against overwhelming odds, the fighting spirit of the underdog). That they did, maybe inspired by the Palestina Libre banners around the unusually busy stadium, this was a big game.

Colo Colo began the game in third place and slightly ahead of Palestino in 4th place in the league. The first half of the game reflected that closeness with Colo Colo being by no means comfortable, but looking just that little bit better and more likely to score. This despite having had their goalkeeper sent off after 15 minutes for deliberate handball outside the area to deny a scoring chance.

In the second half, Palestino enforced their numerical advantage but Colo Colo defended well. And with la garra, Chilean football is tough and the tackles go flying in like it’s 1970s Britain — a bit of a joy for those of us who have yet to get over the passing of that fine decade.

After hitting the bar with a fine acrobatic shot, it seemed that Colo Colo would hold out but a late penalty was converted by Carrasco in the 82nd minute.

The penalty looked a bit soft to be honest, and was awarded after the usual lengthy VAR discussion; but on this day of all days, Palestino, and the people it represents, deserved a bit of a break.

Colo Colo remain in third position, now level on points with Palestino. Both clubs are some way behind the top two and have little chance of automatic entry into the Copa Libertadores next season.

If Palestino do manage to get in through the play-offs, I for one will be making the long trip to see them. As the club’s motto says: Mas que un equipo, todo un pueblo (More than a team, a whole people).

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