“IN 2013, MOHAMMED ASSAF (FROM PALESTINE) WON THE ARAB IDOL CONTEST. HIS VICTORY TRIGGERED HUGE OUTBURSTS OF JOY IN PALESTINIAN COMMUNITIES ALL OVER THE WORLD. JUST LIKE A SONG CAN BE MORE THAN A SONG, CLUB DEPORTIVO is MORE THAN A SOCCER TEAM. WE WANT TO BRING PRIDE AND JOY TO ALL PALESTINIANS.”
My father arrived in Chile in 1957. He came from Peru where my grandfather settled when he came from Palestine. All of my fathers family still lives in Arequipa (Peru) but as my mother was Chilean, they started a family here, in Santiago de Chile.
My father had a textile business. That was an option for me as well but I choose to started my career in the financial industry. Today, I run a banking/insurance company in Santiago de Chile.
I have always been very active in the Palestinian community in Santiago. As a child, we spent most of our time at the social Club Palestino and as I grew up, I became more and more involved at the soccer club Deportivo Palestino.
Both the soccer club and the social club are the beating heart of the Palestinian community in Santiago. In 2002, I became a member of the board of Club Deportivo. Since 2011, I am the president. (Note. In May 2017, Fernando Aguad stepped down as president of the club).
How did a Palestinian soccer team end up being successful in Chile?
The club was founded in 1920. It is older than the state of Israel (smiles). During the beginning of the 20th century, many Palestinians moved to Chile. Our immigration started due to a conflict with the Ottoman Empire and has never stopped. The Palestinians in Chile were always very focused on integrating within the Chilean society. And they were very successful in business: especially in the textile industry, some Palestinian families became big employers and major contributors to the economical growth of Chile. The creation of a Palestinian soccer team in Santiago is to be seen in that context: it was both a way to participate in the Chilean society as a way to be proud of our culture. We look back at the foundation of Club Deportivo as an act of friendship and a way to remember our roots.
“The creation of a Palestinian soccer team in Santiago was both a way to participate in the Chilean society as a way to be proud of our culture. ”
Today, the Club also plays an important social role. The stadium and the training facilities are situated in La Cisterna, which is a less prosperous part of Santiago de Chile. Even if the spirit in the Club is Palestinian, most of the people that play for the Club have no Palestinian origin. The youth center of our club trains 450 kids. The majority comes from La Cisterna. Soccer is a way to build a future for themselves and for their families. The Club is very well known for its tradition to play with young players and to transfer them to other clubs. In fact, that is the business model of the Club: as our young players become successful and move on in their career, the Club receives a share of the transfer money. Of course not all of them become stars but even for those who do not, the Club provides a stable infrastructure and an education during important years of their life. When we play at home, our stadium is packed with families of the children who play in our youth center. Many of these families do not have Palestinian origins but they perfectly blend in with our Palestinian fans. When Deportivo plays, everybody becomes Palestinian (smiles).
These days, we can attract players who come from everywhere in Chile. They come because of the reputation of our training center and because we are known for the fact that our first team gives chances to many youngsters. Deportivo is a stepping stone for them.
Do you recruit players from Palestine?
No, we don’t. Not yet anyway. We have considered the option to train coaches from Palestine. They could help soccer to evolve in our homeland. Our sponsor, Bank of Palestine, supports this idea. But the environment in Palestine is just not stable enough for the moment. We are not a rich club and we have to choose carefully where we invest. But soccer is very popular in Palestine and this remains an option.
Our biggest strength is that we create empathy for Palestine. Everybody who hears about us is reminded of the injustice in Palestine and feels sympathy for the Palestinian cause. That gives us energy, even more than winning. Everybody who is active for the club, player or volunteer, feels an ambassador for Palestine. We do not only play to win a cup, we play on two other fronts: for Palestine and for our young players. Of course we want to win our games, let there be no misunderstanding. But the foundation of the Club is a special mix of community work: both in La Cisterna as with the Palestinian community in Santiago.
What is the history behind the Palestinian map on the shirts?
This started spontaneous. Our club exists thanks to the enthusiasm of many. In 2014, somebody came up with the idea to replace the number one on the shirt with the historical Palestinian map. It represents Palestine as it existed when the first Palestinians came here. We use this map all the time on cultural events. I loved and supported the idea because we are more than a soccer club. We are an important part of the Palestinian community. In 2013, Mohammed Assaf (from Palestine) won the Arab Idol contest. His victory triggered huge outbursts of joy in Palestinian communities all over the World. Just like a song can be more than a song, Club Deportivo wants to be more than a soccer team. We want to bring pride and joy to all Palestinians. When we qualified for the Copa Libertadores in 2015 (Champions League in South America), all soccer fans in Latin America saw the Palestinian flag. We were so proud: it was an achievement that was beyond soccer.
“In 2014, somebody came up with the idea to replace the number one on the shirt with the historical Palestinian map. It represents Palestine as it existed when the first Palestinians came here. We use this map all the time on cultural events. I loved and supported the idea because we are more than a soccer club. ”
We played a few games in the new shirts without any issues. But when Jewish organizations started to lobby against it, first in Chile and later on an international level, we were caught in a media storm. In the end, the Chilean Federation stopped us from using the shirts in official games. They remain very popular though (smiles). Some players have even tattooed the Palestinian map on their arm, to show their support in this matter.
What is typical Palestinian about this club?
We are both a Chilean and Palestinian club. If you are at a game in our stadium, Palestine is not far away. Even if people speak Spanish and we play with snowy mountains on the background. But there will be so many Palestinian flags, there will be Palestinian music and food in the bar. What happens in Palestine is on our minds: people talk about it regularly.
But what is most important is the spirit of the club: it reflects the Palestinian nature. Soccer players are modern mercenaries, they move from team to team. Nobody forgets his stay in Deportivo though. We have a very close bond with the players, they have all my phone number in their mobile and they know they can call me if there is a problem. We try to be generous and correct with them, as if they are family. This loyalty towards the family; that is what is most Palestinian about Deportivo.
“Our biggest strength is that we create empathy for Palestine. Everybody who hears about us is reminded of the injustice in Palestine and feels sympathy for the Palestinian cause. That gives us energy, even more than winning. ”