ohn Sunday afternoon Iñaki Williams boarded a plane north to Paris. By the time he left for Le Havre on Monday, Nico Williams was heading in the opposite direction, south to Barajas and on to Las Rozas, 25km outside Madrid. On Saturday, a night none of them would ever forget – a joyous, joyous celebration of all that they are – they had embraced; then, for the first time, the Bilbao brothers went their separate ways. “It was always a dream of ours to play together and see our mother happy,” says Iñaki. This week they won’t be, a new chapter is starting in their lives. But they will come back and, boy, if they knew.
As for her mother, Maria, she couldn’t be happier. The scheduling means she will hopefully be able to see her two sons take their next giant steps. This Friday, 28-year-old Iñaki Williams is likely to make his Ghana debut against Brazil in France. They arrive after celebrating those call-ups with a 3-2 win over Rayo Vallecano to take Athletic into the Champions League. It was Inaki’s 239th game in a row – yes, two hundred and thirty-ninth and, yes, apart – for Athletics. It was Nico’s 48th place overall. It was also the first game that both of them scored, San Mamés buzzing around them.
The first time Iñaki played for Athletic, back in 2014, he didn’t know exactly how he got there. He was 20 when his mother sat him down and told him how she was pregnant with him when she and her husband Felix left Ghana and crossed the Sahara by truck and barefoot – still have problems Felix walked – and climbed the fence to Melilla, Spanish north. Africa. A few months later, Iñaki was born in Bilbao. Fate, he called it. “My friends and I talk about it: bloody hell, unbelievable. Everything happens for a Reason. If I hadn’t been born in Bilbao, I could never have played for Athletic.”
Iñaki joined the club at 14, driven by purpose. In 2005 or 2006, with the family living in social housing in Pamplona and the financial crisis erupting, Felix left for London, desperately looking for work, doing anything and everything he could get. . “I knew that if I did it, I would solve a lot of things and that idea of reuniting the family was the most important thing,” Iñaki recalled. “I dreamed of being a footballer but I also dreamed of uniting my family.” He did so at San Mamés: Inaki played 346 times for the first team, deep into the run when Nico, who arrived at the club aged 11, joined him.
Now for the first time they will be playing for different teams. If results go right, they could even face each other at the World Cup.
Nico has always been a bit special, almost as quick as Iñaki but smaller, more skilful, more creative. “More talented,” admitted Iñaki himself, even if he didn’t have the same drive, the same sense of destiny. He also had another advantage: he had his brother. Nico has only one tattoo, of a lion and his cub representing him and the brother he says was like a father. When Felix left for London – “we saw each other once a year for almost 10 years” – Nico was two or three. Iñaki would prepare his lunch, pick him up from school, take him to football, even referee games – the €10 fee was handy. In short, rise to it. It could be tough, tough at times, leading him. Above all, there was love.
There was a glimpse of that at the Super Cup when Nico won her medal in second place; Iñaki warned him and told him to put it on again, to appreciate what he had achieved. He also laid a gentle hand on Nico’s neck as he watched Real Madrid collect the trophy. After the semi-final when Nico scored his first goal, he tweeted: “If I loved you more I would die.” More messages came, like a proud parent following his son’s career. And when Nico found out about his Spanish calling this week, Iñaki saw a dream come true for both of them.
Iñaki played for Spain U21s and was called up to the senior squad once before, in a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2016, but never made it back. Ghana contacted him, but he rejected the opportunity, believing that it was not his place: he speaks Twi but was born in Bilbao, he feels Basque, and he didn’t think it was right to take the hope of another player from them. The federation was determined – they also contacted Nico – and Iñaki changed his mind. Age played a part (at 28 this was probably his last chance to go to the World Cup) and over the summer he visited Ghana for the first time in many years, seeing grandparents, family, places that shaped his life. There was a long discussion, and something inside him shifted.
He talked about heritage, journey, lessons from his parents. “My roots have come to this moment to find my roots, and everything that Ghana and Africa means to me and my family, because Ghana was connected to me to be who I am as a son and brother,” he said.
Even as they went their separate ways they were brought together, senior calls coming unexpectedly at the same time, their first chance days apart. If they do not play in Le Havre and Zaragoza respectively, they could start their international careers on the same night: next Tuesday Spain play Portugal in Braga and Ghana face Nicaragua in Lorca. If Iñaki knew this was coming, Nico didn’t. He is only 20, and he still lives at home with his mother – the boss, as Iñaki calls her – this call was not expected yet, although he is flying this season, flashes of something special , especially in his terrifying goal against Elche. Consistency too, he has played every game, starting five of the six.
“I am not doing this to stop him from going to Ghana; he is young and a very interesting player,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique. “He’s playing more often with Athletic now. It’s going great. I like it very much. He is in our junior squad and we have been following him for a long time. I think the family will be happy: imagine the party if they both go to the World Cup. And they get to the final, well, that was the whole deal.”
As for the party, how about this? Nico’s call came on Friday; the following night, there was a celebration at San Mamés, the best game of the season so far. Athletic against Rayo, two sets of fans sing together. Two managers who have shared so much, Ernesto Valverde and Andoni Iraola, face each other for the first time. And two teams that really go for it: Iraola compare his style to a type of “organized chaos”, which is how the organization goes the best type. The result was a wild, fun ride. “An ode to football,” a “monument to the game,” one commentator called it.
“Fiesta with San Mamés as the disco, 44,000 singing along … an explosive cocktail of football,” in the words of AS. “The great night,” called Ander Herrera, ending with thunder. “One of those nights that makes you love football: pure rock and roll,” according to the Athletic report. “You won’t enjoy a night like this for a while,” El Correo said.
In short, if you watched it: lucky you. If you didn’t: do. Even a replay will be rewarded, the kind of breathless event, intense, unstoppable that even the VAR could not destroy – and, by God, he tried. He had 25 shots, five goals, including an outrageous volley outside Radamel Falcao, four disallowances, and two posts.
Above all, he had two brothers. “We enjoy them, they enjoy us,” Valverde said. The conditions were perfect and the Williamses tore it up, unleashing a hurricane. Down 0-1 early on, Iñaki scored a superb equaliser, his hand to deflect Dani García’s pass and escape the impeccable defence. Oihan Sancet won 2-1 with a great goal. And then came Nico’s strike, his brother running across and leaping into his arms, before Falcao’s absurd second-half goal made it 3-2. Iñaki published a photo of that celebration declaring “to be continued…” but for now they have to go their own way and things could not be better, began the pitchside interview with Iñaki: “congratulations … for everything.”
“We’re excited”, Williams Senior said. “Saturday night, 9pm, two goals, win. This is San Mamés and we are grateful. We are proud to be together, able to give Gaelic Athletic nights like this. Our mother will be happy with her boys.”