Shukran, Peto! Kettlun calls time on 15-year career

Roberto Kettlun with the national team during the 2012 Nakba Cup

When a pro athlete calls time on his career his accomplishments are usually summed up in the amount of minutes played, trophies won, and records set. Every so often, however, an athlete’s body of work can’t really be summed up by an aggregation of of stat sheets.

Roberto Kettlun is one of those types of athletes. A cursory glance of his CV will show that he won 23 caps, scored three goals, and played professionally in Chile, Greece, and Italy before a four year stint in Palestine’s WBPL. His time in Palestine was truly revolutionary; as the first established national team star to move to the new league he encouraged others to join him and help the league develop.

Kettlun elected to represent Palestine as a 21-year old. An assertive decision for a footballer with the opportunity to play for an established footballing power at the national team level. Oftentimes, smaller nations come to rely on talent bred abroad but the sentiment amongst fans is that these players are simply opportunists. It was clear from the beginning that Peto was not one of these players.

“It was a little bit difficult because I was playing at a good level with the possibility of joining the full [Chilean] national team,” he said in a 2014 interview. 
“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.”
“From that very first tournament in 2002 I knew how special this opportunity was,” he said.

Fans really took to Roberto who showed unbridled passion as he bamboozled defences at the 2002 Arab Nations Cup. His combination play with players who were cultivated domestically was seamless and his mark on the team of the early noughties is clearly defined. Kettlun was an integral part of a side that helped transform Palestine from plucky minnow to a respectable member of the Asian middle class.

He made history at club level as well, becoming the first Palestinian national team player to play in a European first division side when he joined Skoda Xanthi in 2003-04. His stint was cut short in a move that endeared him further to the fans- refusing a request to turn down national team call ups while with the Greek side.

For a follow up act, he marshaled the national team to its biggest ever win in a World Cup qualifier scoring twice in an 8-0 demolition of Chinese Taipei. Two months later, his sumptuous free kick equalizer against Iraq sent Palestine to the summit of their 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying group.

Internal chaos within the PFA robbed fans the chance to see Peto don the national team shirt in his prime between 2006 and 2012.

A brief return to the national team showcased his influence in different realms. In a more withdrawn midfield position, Kettlun was adept at settling play and changing pace with tidy passes. His involvement with Jamal Mahmoud’s side might have been limited but his presence was acutely felt as he played a key role in South American recruitment and mentoring younger players at home.

Footballers who have been lucky enough to be exposed to his tutelage are imbibed with ambition and confidence and their professional approach to their craft is a fry cry from the attitude that existed amongst some players only a generation ago.

If you ask a dozen fans about their favorite Roberto Kettlun story you are likely to get a dozen different answers. There’s no shortage of sporting memories- with the aforementioned big time national team goals, seven domestic championships, and signature Panenka penalty kick conversions- but the memories tend to not be associated with these accomplishments. Many fans have a favorite personal moment with the player, because he always took the time to speak to anyone who cared about Palestine and Palestinian football as much as he did.

His time as an athlete may be coming to an end but it’s quite clear that Peto’s influence will continue to be felt for years to come. For now, all we can say is thank you, gracias, shukran for an incredible journey, for indelible moments, and for revolutionizing football in Palestine. 

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