Feature

From Palestine to Chile and back again

Roberto Kettlum played 23 times for Palestine for three goals (Image: Scott McIntyre)

Roberto Kettlun's football odyssey may not culminate with an appearance at next year's AFC Asian Cup in Australia but it's one that goes some way to explaining the power of football in Palestine.

"Do you know how many Palestinians cannot come here because of political problems? Football can bring you here."

Here, in the final week of Ramadan, is the bustling West Bank town of Ramallah.

I’m at a café just off the iconic Al Manara square with one of the veterans of the state's football side, Roberto Kettlun, a player at the heart of one of the more unusual international sporting alliances – the link between Palestine and Chile.

It was from the small (and predominantly Christian) towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour & Beit Safafa that the initial flow of Palestinians started arriving in far away South America in the middle of the 19th century.

Whether seeking economic opportunity or fleeing fear of persecution what began as a trickle turned into a cascade during World War I and then the events of 1948 and 1967.

It's now estimated that there is half a million Chileans of Palestinian descent living in the country.

Derided as 'Turks' upon their arrival and facing intense discrimination they did what migrant communities the world over have done – establish a football club.

Founded in 1920, today the Palestino club stands as a proud reminder of what the community was and what it has become.

As a two-time champion of Chilean football it isn't merely a community club but rather a serious force in that country's football scene.

It sits eigthh after six rounds of the Primera Division and knocked off powerhouse Universidad Catolica 2-1 earlier this week.

It's not all been smooth sailing though; in January it was threatened with a fine after producing a new design that featured a map of the combined territory of Israel and Palestine on the front of the playing strip.

It was from this same city, Santiago, that Kettlun began his footballing journey.

The grandson of a man from Bethlehem, the midfielder was a member of the Chile U-20 squad when the call came to represent his family's homeland.

It was, he admits, a tough decision but one over which he holds no regrets.

"It was a little bit difficult because I was playing at a good level with the possibility of joining the full national team," he said.

"It was not sure but it was a chance but then I got the opportunity to come here to the Middle East and my father was very enthusiastic because it's the Palestinian way.

"He told me you should go; you have this opportunity in your hand and the other one maybe yes or maybe not and plus it has a symbolic meaning for all the family."

So, like that, the decision was made and Kettlun arrived in Kuwait with the squad to prepare for the 2002 Arab Nations Cup.

The side was coached by a Chilean-Palestinian, Nicola Shahwan, the original arctitect of the 'project' to bring the South American diaspora together with players from the West Bank and Gaza.

It was only four years after Palestine had been formally re-admitted to FIFA in 1998 and was the beginning of a journey that has culminated in the nation reaching next year's AFC Asian Cup.

Arriving as part of a squad where language was just one of the barriers was an eye-opening experience for the young Kettlun.

"I discovered a whole new world and a new picture of the situation because, even with a lot of Palestinians in Chile, the news we get is not what happened," he said.

"Especially at that time there was the whole conflict in the Gulf with Kuwait, Iraq and the States so the Palestinian conflict was a little on the side but because of what was happening we were not allowed to play in Palestine and so the first time I actually arrived here was in 2012."

A professional career that began with Catolica in Chile took him to clubs in Greece and Italy and now, in the twilight of his career, he's playing professionally for a side based in Jerusalem.

But it's the experiences with the national side that he cherishes the most.

"From that very first tournament in 2002 I knew how special this opportunity was," he said.

"We played a very nice tournament but it was the reaction of the Palestinian refugees in Kuwait that I'll never forget.

"They came to support us in all the games and after a huge caravan came from the stadium to the hotel and were waiting for us, maybe 2000 people with drums, music and Palestine flags and we were huge heroes for them; it was the most moving moment I lived in football."

Thereafter Kettlun was part of the squads that attempted to qualify for the 2004 Asian Cup and 2006 World Cup and which featured some memorable matches – notably a win over Thailand and a draw with Iraq.

Now though the focus is firmly on the team's maiden appearance at a major international tournament and, while the 33 year-old known as Peto admits he's unlikely to be part of the playing group in Australia, he will be involved through his work with the Palestinian Football Association.

"We know we are going to play with better and stronger teams than us but we know also that the football in Palestine is in a good moment and we have good players and the opportunity to show what we can do," he said.

"This competition is more important, for us, than the World Cup because we know this is the only opportunity we have to put our flag and say look we exist, we play football here.

"Don't let anybody say we are terrorists or we don't exist. No, we come here to say things in football."

But as Kettlun knows, even organising something as simple as football in Palestine presents unique challenges.

"We face two problems here; first of all is an external problem that doesn't depend on us and that is the occupation problem and the second problem is an internal problem that comes from the transition from amateur football to professional football," he said.

"Before 2008 the football and the league did not exist here in the West Bank and in Gaza it existed but the standards were very low.

"Now with Abu Rami (PFA President Jibril Rajoub) arriving he did a lot of very important things like organising a professional league with support of FIFA and building facilities, stadiums, academies and so on but the problem is many of the people who are running all of this are the same people who were running before the amateur football."

While those internal obstacles are being addressed step by step it's the wider problem of dealing with the external issues which present greater roadblocks.

Kettlun knows though that football presents a unique case to press the Palestinian cause on a wider stage.

"Football gives us a platform that not many sports and even political associations can give because it gives us a platform on FIFA," he said.

"Because of FIFA we have the same rights and obligations as all the rest of the other countries. We have the possibility to claim for our rights, this does not happen even in the UN or the international law because we are not yet recognised as a sole state but in FIFA we are a full member.

"Maybe football is a starting point and then it spreads to another sport or to civilians but I think it's the first step to try to find a truce between Israel and Palestine that we want.

"We don't want for more fighting, more death or more conflict. I think it's enough, more than 50 years of fighting."

Kettlun also knows the power of football in giving the youth of Palestine the simplest of goals – hope.

"As much as we want to focus on developing professional players we must also give the opportunity to the social or younger players because, to be honest, football here allows you to leave aside the conflict for a couple of hours and breathe," he said.

Far from the suburbs of Santiago where his formative footballing steps were taken, here is now one of the finest advocates for a nation whose football is under – figurative and literal – fire.

"If it wasn't for football I still might be that 20 year-old ignorant guy that knows Palestine just because his grandfather was Palestinian or he knows a few words of Arabic or he eats Arabic food on Sunday at his grandmother's home," he admitted.

"Football allows you these rich experiences and gives you something very important and something that not many people are allowed – to come back here to Palestine."