“When you go to Disneyland you’re there to have fun. You go on the rollercoasters, you see the princesses and this is the same thing. We can’t waste a single minute or fail to enjoy every moment of being in the Copa Libertadores.”
These are the words of Palestino coach Pablo Guede, neatly summing up just how much it meant to the humble Chilean outfit to be back in Latin America's premier club competition after a 36-year absence.
In late 2014, the club clinched their place in the competition’s two-legged first stage, where blocking their path were Uruguayan heavyweights Nacional de Montevideo – clear favourites to win the tie and progress to the group phase. But after prevailing 1-0 in the first leg at home, Palestino completed the job in 12 February’s second leg despite a 2-1 reverse, thanks to veteran striker Renato Ramos heading an all-important away goal.
What's more, the triumph that led to this year’s Libertadores group campaign, which will begin this Wednesday against none other than six-time winners Boca Juniors, was met with huge celebrations in Chile and beyond. Quick to send his congratulations via Twitter was Arsenal and Chile superstar Alexis Sanchez (“Grande TINO TINO Palestino...@CDPalestinoSADP”), while the achievement also made waves over 13,000km from the Chilean capital Santiago – in Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem and Beit Jala.
Indeed, the club's links to Palestine goes much further than merely its name. The club was founded in Chile in the early 20th century with a view to serving the interests of the country’s Palestinian community which, at that time, numbered over 100,000, making it the largest of its kind outside of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the team quickly became known as Los Árabes.
Starting out as an amateur club with all its squad members initially of Arabic heritage, victory in the first, and to date only, edition of the United Chilean-Arabic Youth Front Olympics in 1950 nudged the club towards professionalism, a step completed two years later.
Palestine’s other national team
Since then, Palestino have twice been crowned Chilean champions – in 1955 and 1978 – and twice claimed the domestic cup. They can also boast the legendary Elias Figueroa, hailed as Chile’s greatest ever footballer, among their ex-players, while they still hold a national record for the longest unbeaten run, set at a staggering 44 games.
What makes Tino different, however, goes much deeper than its sporting achievements, the club having maintained strong links to Palestine and its culture throughout its nearly 100-year history. In fact, the club’s colours match that of the Palestinian flag and many of its supporters are easily recognisable due to wearing traditional black-and-white keffiyeh headscarves.
In light of their recent feats, the President of the Palestinian Authority sent a congratulatory message to the club, which included the sentiment that “Palestino are a little piece of Palestine in Chile”, while many citizens of Gaza and the West Bank see the Chilean club as their ‘other national team’.
And following Palestine’s historic first ever appearance at the AFC Asian Cup this year, and while they wait for the national team to kick off its qualifying bid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, the country’s football fans can continue to savour the Libertadores progress of Palestino and, who knows, break into the occasional chant of the club’s rallying cry “Tino Tino Palestino!"