Yashir Pinto: The Palestine international found on LinkedIn

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Yashir Pinto: The Palestine international found on LinkedIn
Pinto says he “wants to make history” playing for Palestine

Yashir Pinto looks tired, and it’s difficult to blame him.

He has just played an international friendly in Kyrgyzstan, but it is the jetlag rather than the football that is afflicting him.

It took him 32 hours to reach Bishkek from his home in Coquimbo in Chile, a route that took in Santiago, Madrid and Istanbul. But when Palestine come calling, he doesn’t think twice.

Pinto, 27, was born in Chile, to Chilean parents, and for a long time it appeared as though he would play international football for the country.

A promising number nine at Colo Colo, Pinto was making waves in the academy at the same time future Manchester United forward Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal – now at Barcelona – were dominating the first team.

He impressed at youth level for Chile, scoring eight goals in 24 appearances for the Under-20s and played at the 2011 South American Under-20 Championship.

But the tournament was a disappointing one for Chile, who were thrashed 5-1 by a Brazil team containing Danilo, Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura. Of that Chilean Under-20 squad, just six players went on to win caps for the senior national team.

And it was from a completely unexpected source – networking site LinkedIn, used in the UK mainly by professionals such as lawyers and accountants – that Pinto became a full international.

Backed by current Leeds boss Bielsa

Pinto was one of several young players invited to travel with the senior Chile squad to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The team were coached by current Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa, who has managed all around the world and whose admirers include Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Tottenham counterpart Mauricio Pochettino.

“This was a great experience for me… I was 19 years old and training with players like Vidal and Sanchez,” Pinto told BBC Sport.

“I learned a lot from Marcelo Bielsa and feel so lucky that he coached me when I was very young. He’s a master of football and every player who has worked with him will say the same. He knows everything about the opposition – every player, every weakness. He gives you the tools to be the best version of yourself. He’s crazy, but he’s crazy for football.”

After that brush with the senior team, Yashir failed to trouble the selectors again and also began to struggle to assert himself domestically, dropping down to the Chilean second tier.

The forward decided to try his luck abroad and went on to play in Canada, Germany, Hungary and Malaysia, where he won the league with Melaka United.

He is now back in his native Chile with Coquimbo Unido, but his life has changed dramatically in the intervening six years. From a nearly man with the Chilean national team, he has become a Palestinian hero.

Yashir was a highly rated player at junior levels for Chile but did not make the step up to become a full international with the country of his birth

‘They sent me a message on LinkedIn’

It was while playing for Budapest outfit Ujpest in 2015 that the first contact with Palestine came, from a somewhat unusual source.

“An official from the Palestine Football Association sent me a message on LinkedIn saying they had been trying to contact me for a long time to play international football for Palestine,” Pinto said.

“It’s funny because I don’t know that many footballers who use LinkedIn so this was very lucky.

“It was a great honour for me to be asked because my grandfather came to Chile from Palestine as a small child and of course talked to us a lot about his homeland. Because of this I always had in mind that I could play for Palestine – it’s in my blood.

“It took around nine months to officially change my status because I had played for Chile at every youth level. But when I was told I could make my debut, this was a fantastic moment.”

Pinto’s journeyman career has taken him all over the world – at Malaysian club Melaka United he scored the goal that won the title in 2016, their first in 33 years

Pinto was not the first South American to represent Palestine – an initial wave of naturalised Palestinians coming under Chilean-Palestinian coach Nicola Hadwa Shahwan in the early 2000s.

Argentina-born Pablo Abdala and Alejandron Naif earned several caps, along with a number of Chileans including Jonathan Cantillana, Hernan Madrid, and Roberto Kettlun.

Still, there was plenty of hype among Palestine fans around Pinto’s debut. This was a player who had an excellent pedigree thanks to an enviable football education.

The pressure was on, but Pinto did not disappoint – scoring twice in a 7-0 World Cup qualifying thrashing of East Timor in Hebron.

“It was my first time in Palestine and to me it was a shock as I didn’t know what to expect. I went from Tel Aviv to Ramallah and waited for five hours at the border,” he said.

“You see immediately how difficult life is for the Palestinian people. You see children and wonder how they can smile but when they do, you realise how much courage the people have.

“This gave me energy to play in that first game; it gives me energy to play in every game. All I can do is play football for 90 minutes but we have the chance to make people forget their problems temporarily. To score a goal on my debut was an unbelievable feeling – it was a really emotional moment to be able connect with the Palestinian people in that way.

“Honestly, when someone comes up to me and thanks me for playing for the national team, this means everything to me.”

A World Cup with Palestine?

Since Pinto’s arrival in the national team set-up, Palestine have qualified for a second successive AFC Asian Cup and are looking to improve on a disappointing debut at the tournament, which ended in three defeats from three games in Australia in 2015.

January’s edition in the UAE could provide a valuable platform for Palestinian players to be noticed.

At every match Pinto has played, he has spotted the Palestine flag.

Members of the sprawling, global Palestinian diaspora can always be guaranteed to attend national team games and Pinto has seen them from Malaysia to Kyrgyzstan.

Pinto says playing for Palestine “means everything” to him

The forthcoming Asian Cup will welcome plenty more Palestinian supporters but, for Pinto, the real dream is to see them present at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“We have a very special country behind us,” he added. “Every game for us is a final because when the people see that Palestine win, they can be happy in what is an unhappy situation for many.

“If we could play in the World Cup for these fans, for these people – words cannot describe it.”

Palestine are ranked 100th in the world. There will be just four guaranteed qualifiers from Asia at the next World Cup, with a fifth team entering a play-off.

It might be more realistic when the World Cup is expanded to 48 teams in 2026 and there will be eight places for Asian teams, but that is not stopping Pinto from thinking big.

“We are a young team and have a lot of quality players so we must believe we can next qualify for the World Cup,” he said. “If we fight together and we play each other, I think we can do something very good for Palestine.

“Everything we do is history and we want to make history again.”

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