HEBRON, West Bank – For over a week, Palestinian soccer fans have been enjoying a special Christmas-season present: the first visit by Chilean soccer club Deportivo Palestino to the West Bank.
Two-time winners of Chile's Premier Division and quarter finalists in this year's Copa Sudamerica, Palestino was founded in 1920 in the capital city Santiago by Palestinian immigrants. The team has a huge following among Palestinians and President Mahmoud Abbas once described the club as a "second national team for the Palestinian people."
"The main purpose of this visit is to reconnect the team to our origins in Palestine," said team general manager Christian Elben Nazal, whose father immigrated to Chile from the town of Beit Jala.
Chile is believed to be the home of the largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world, most from the historically Christian towns of Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahur. The team's red, white, black and green jersey represents the colors of the Palestinian flag and the community's attachment to their ancestral land.
During the week-long visit, Palestino has visited historical sites and played two matches, one with the Palestinian national team, and another with an all-star team from the Hebron area. It also conducted training sessions with children and young players.
Soccer fans braved the rain and chilly weather as they sat in the small stadium waiting for the beginning of the Hebron match last Thursday.
The event's announcer practiced introductions in Arabic and Spanish. Long banners on the side of the field read: "From Santiago to Jerusalem you are in our heart."
Palestinian national songs played over speakers, followed by the visiting team's Spanish "Hymno de Club Deportivo Palestino" as the competing squads entered the stadium to the crowd's cheers.
"I don't care who wins," said Osama Montasir, 54, a local fan. "We are witnessing an athletic carnival between Palestinians of the motherland and the diaspora."
Palestinian sports officials are hoping the visit will push the game of soccer forward here.
"They will see how sports here suffer," said Hisham Abu Shekhidem, a team manager and a former player for Hebron's Al-Ahli soccer club. "We will gain experience from them and this will help our national team."
Like so many other aspects of Palestinian life, soccer is clouded by the rocky relationship with Israel. The Palestinian soccer federation has repeatedly attempted — unsuccessfully — to have Israel expelled from the FIFA world soccer federation on various grounds, accusing Israel of blocking the movement of athletes and saying that teams in West Bank settlements are illegal.
Chilean players of Palestinian descent have come to play with local teams and the national squad in recent years. Now, Palestino is eyeing Palestinian players to come play in Chile's soccer leagues.
Shadi Shaban, 24, a midfielder and former player in both the Palestinian and Israeli leagues, is now on loan to Palestino after being spotted during a training camp for Hebron's Al-Ahli in Santiago last year.
"Playing in Chile has been a great experience, it's a higher level of soccer," said Shaban, who has been playing in Chile now for six months. "As the first Palestinian to play in Chile, I opened the gate and I hope others will follow."
While the Palestinian national soccer team currently ranks far behind at 133, according to this month's FIFA rankings, Roberto "Tito" Bishara, a former player for Palestino and the Palestinian national team, is optimistic that the team will improve.
"I know how much they are trying to develop soccer here. I'm sure Palestine will be in a World Cup soon," Bishara said.
Palestino hasn't escaped controversy. In 2014, the Chilean Football Federation forced the club to alter its jersey that carried the number one in the shape of historical Palestine, including all of what is now Israel, after complaints from local Jewish organizations.
On the current visit, the team applied for a permit to cross through Israel and enter Gaza, but was denied. COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for issuing travel permits, did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.
While touring Jerusalem's Old City last week, the players were also slightly startled by the sound of gunshots and the scene of soldiers running following the shooting of a Palestinian youth who stabbed and lightly wounded two Israeli police officers with a screwdriver.
"We were not surprised, it's what we read about, but it was the first time to live the experience," said manager Nazal.
The fast-paced match between Palestino and the Hebron all-stars team ended with a 1-1 draw.
Carrying a cardboard sign that read "Cheer for Palestine," Muhammad Netcha, 28, found the result to his liking.
"I support both teams," he said. "It's a match between Palestine and Palestine."