War Games

By James Baines  |  27 Jan 2015

I grew up in front of a screen. While we ate, we watched events from around the world unfold. We looked on as rocket attacks begot airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and, closer to home, as UKIP beat David Cameron with its anti-immigration shtick. Through it all, though, there was a sense of feigned engagement; it’s hard not to feel distanced from these issues of cultural identity and conflict when they’re experienced from the tea-and-biscuit comfort of the armchair.

It was refreshing, then, to stumble upon the story of Chile’s Primera División. More specifically, to discover the way in which one team, amongst many, represents the complexity of issues such as conflict, displacement and immigration through its recent footballing past.

Chile’s top professional league, much like its architecture, bears all the hallmarks of cosmopolitan influence. The championship table is a buffet of a global football culture so abundant that each season several derbies – known locally as Clásicos de Colonias – take place between teams representing diaspora from across the globe.

Audax Club Sportivo Italiano was founded in 1910 by Italian migrants in a Santiago hat store; Club Unión Española is the second oldest football club in Chilean history, formed by Spanish migrants in 1897; Chile’s founding father, Bernardo O’Higgins – of Spanish and Irish ancestry – helped to free the country from colonial rule in the late eighteenth century, and today his legend lives on through the eponymous O’Higgins Football Club.

These are just some of the teams that regularly comprise the Primera División’s fixture list each weekend. But it is another that has attracted the attention of football fans and international journalists alike: that team is Club Deportivo Palestino, a sporting entity that represents the world’s largest community of Palestinians outside the Middle Eastern territory.

The club was formed in 1920 by Palestinian Arab Elias Deik Lamas, a teenage tennis star conscious of the vital role football had played in helping other migrant groups find a semblance of place and identity in the country they now called home.

Lamas’ new addition to the sporting landscape was not met with open arms, however; on joining the Santiago Football Association’s Youth League of Honour, the team were shamed and derided by supporters and opposition players alike. Despite reportedly remaining undefeated, they quit the league as a result of the hostility they encountered.

Over the next 30 years Palestino made a name for itself as a a production line not for footballers, but for tennis players. Many – Elias included – made the switch to tennis because of its more gentlemanly machinations; the British sense of high culture equated with the sport was altogether more palatable for certain strata of Chilean society.

This was made possible largely due to the fact that, unlike the Palestinian communities in Argentina and Brazil, those that settled in Chile had done so with a degree of wealth behind them. The extra capital provided a nascent CD Palestino with the necessary resources and influence to begin navigating the upper echelons of the Chilean elite, and eventually establish itself as a pillar within the community. It also helped convince the Central Association of Football to award the club professional status and a place in the Segunda División, just in time for the start of the 1952 season.

The club’s financial clout quickly became a talking point and was widely publicised by Chile’s left-leaning news outlets. The nation’s most popular team, Colo-Colo, told reporters in 1952 that Palestino – fast becoming known as ‘The Millionaires’ Club’ – had tried to hijack their move for the Robledo brothers, George and Ted, who, having torn up England’s scoring records at Newcastle United, were ready to return home.

It wasn’t just CD Palestino, however, that found itself under increased media pressure. The popular weekly publication Estadio claimed that the stadia of several migrant clubs were unnecessary signifiers of privilege, and demanded that use of the facilities be extended to local communities.

It’s a familiar rhetoric, the echoes of which reverberate in living rooms up and down the country to this day; there is a striking similarity between Nigel Farage, dressed-down like Del Boy to deliver hurried comments about the effect of migrants on the British job market, and the Chilean weeklies that sought to paint the local diasporas’ attempts at inclusiveness as conceited superiority.

Ultimately, though, CD Palestino’s pilloried struggle to become a part of the tapestry of modern-day Chile is indicative of the ways in which cosmopolitan identity can be comprehended, teased out and untangled through sport.

George Orwell believed football is a war game – a spectacle founded on the same adversarial politics that govern conflict. But a war game, however maligned, is just that; a game. It is not war; it is a simulation of violence. Each time Chile’s migrant communities – Palestinian, Spanish, Italian or otherwise – took to the pitch, they were engaging in their own non-violent wars, and in victory or defeat, the outcome remained the same: at the final whistle, they shook hands with their opponents and made for the pub together.

Today, the Primera División offers a window onto the racial, religious and cultural diversity to be found across the country as a whole. The clubs themselves are homes, where local communities can come together to form ideas and express frustrations. In December, while my father and I watched air strikes hit the Gaza Strip in high definition, saying little, CD Palestino were busy pressing new numbers onto the backs of their jerseys in staunch defiance. Instances of the number one were replaced with an outline of the Palestinian state as it was before the creation of Israel. The footballing authorities later banned the shirt, ruling that politics and football should not intermix, but the message went out all the same.

Palestino, Italiano, Española and many more of Chile’s migrant teams fought their battle to belong through the tragedies and triumphs of sport. And, as we watch our world divide around us from the comfort of a sofa you can’t help but think: What are we doing for our own sense of identity? The answer, from the outset, is not a lot.

James Baines writes for Vice, and is a regular contributor to The Green Soccer Journal.
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