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Chile's Palestino win Palestinian fans worldwide

April 3, 2015 12:55 P.M. (Updated: April 5, 2015 5:03 P.M.)
SANTIAGO (AFP) -- Palestino, a Chilean football team long down on their luck, are playing for the first time in 36 years in the Copa Libertadores, the top club tournament in Latin America, cheered on by ecstatic Palestinians worldwide.

The Santiago-based club's qualification for the regional tournament after a more than three-decade drought has sparked a football frenzy among Chile's Palestinian community, one of the largest outside the Middle East.

It has also won the club a rabid following among Palestinians worldwide who are elated to see the players take the pitch in the red, green, black and white of their people's flag.

"Palestino triggers a lot of emotions. It represents a people without a voice," said Anuar Majluf, director of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, an organization that represents the South American country's more than 350,000 Palestinians.

"Keeping our Palestinian identity alive through sport, raising the Palestinian flag on the continent through sport, is simply a marvelous thing," he told AFP.

Thousands of kilometers (miles) away, in Ramallah, Palestinian fans are following the Chilean club as if it were their home team.

Despite the time difference, Mounzer Zahran rearranges his schedule to follow the Copa Libertadores action at home in the West Bank.

"Sometimes I stay up until 5:00 am to watch the matches," he told AFP.

"To me, it's important to support the team, because it carries the name of Palestine. And seeing the stands filled with Palestinian flags during the matches is priceless."

His friend Daoud Nassar, a student in the West Bank town of Birzeit, beamed in his Palestino jersey -- sent to him by a friend in Chile -- as he described the club's rabid following at his university.

"They are raising Palestine's colors high. They represent it with pride," he said.

The club's fans include Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who has called them the "pride of the Palestinian people."

After the club defeated three-time tournament champions Nacional de Uruguay to advance to the second round, Abbas called the feat "a very good example that, when Palestinians are given their freedom, they can work miracles."

"I call on all Palestinians and people who sympathize with our cause to support Palestino, because they are carrying our message of freedom, justice and peace wherever they play," he told Chilean newspaper La Tercera.

The club have had rougher going in the second round, and are currently in third place in Group Five with four points.

But with two matches to go in the group stage they can still qualify for the knock-out round.

They are hoping to turn their fortunes around Tuesday when they face Venezuelan side Zamora, who are currently bottom of the group.

Controversial jersey

Palestino are the only professional team in the world to compete in FIFA-sanctioned matches wearing the colors of the Palestinian flag, and the team's jersey has previously caused controversy.

Two years ago, the club came out with a new jersey design that featured a map of Palestine before the creation of Israel in 1948.

That drew an outrage from Chile's Jewish community, which complained to the local football federation which subsequently sanctioned the club, ruling that the map was a political statement.

But the club has defiantly continued including the map in less visible form. Currently, it features on the sleeve.

"Putting the map on the jersey is our way of showing our identity and our resistance in Chile as well as in Palestine," said Nadia Garin, a 39-year-old descendant of Palestinian immigrants.

Palestino was founded as a club for the Palestinian immigrants who arrived in Chile by the thousands in the early 20th century, and made its professional debut in 1952.

Initially its players were all Arab, but over time its Palestinian identity has become more figurative than literal.

While today none of the players come from an Arab background, the club is an important part of the Palestinian community's identity.

Ashared passion for football has helped pave the way for Palestinians' broader acceptance in Chilean society, said community leader Majluf.

"The club was created because Chileans didn't want Palestinians to play on their teams. So we created this team. Once we were able to play, little by little we were accepted and we managed to integrate into Chilean society," he said.

Restricted football in Palestine

The rise of Chilean team Palestino marks Palestinian support of yet another team outside of occupied Palestine itself. Despite the popularity of football among Palestinians, the Palestinian National Football team garners much less visibility than Spain's Barcelona's Football Club and Real Madrid, for whom support runs rampant.

Critics have argued this is partially due to the impact of Israeli policies that limit the team's capacity for success on the field. The Palestinian National Football team routinely encounters restrictions from Israeli authorities, including rare instances for holding home games.

Players residing in the Gaza Strip are generally barred from traveling to the West Bank for practices, and others at times detained during football-related travel. Shipments of sports equipment are delayed at Israeli checkpoints, sometimes never making it into the hands of the players.

The national team itself includes several who previously lived outside of occupied Palestine. Due to restrictions and difficulties in obtaining exit visas from Israel for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, players are often drawn from Palestinian diaspora to play for the national team.

Israel has faced international criticism for its policies in regards to Palestinian National Football players.

In 2013, opponents of the policies staged a protest against UEFA's (Union of European Football Association) decision for Israel to host the under-21 European Championship and the women’s under-19 European Championship in 2013 and 2015.

Supporters of the protest argued their signification of support and reward of Israeli racism and discrimination against Palestinian athletes. A boycott of the championship was campaigned by Red Card Israeli Racism, and petitioned by human rights leaders such as Desmond Tutu.

UEFA President Michel Platini ignored the requests and the championships were held anyway in June 2013.

Nonetheless the national team has managed to play worldwide, most recently in the Asia Cup in 2014, during which Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajub praised the team for their successes.

"The Palestine team, which is playing against the biggest teams in Asia has -- despite the occupation, the blockade (on Gaza), and pressure and repression by Israel -- attracted the attention of the media and the international community," he said.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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