Despite being his World Cup debut and a 7-0 win, the Costa Rica match wasn’t the one Nico Williams was most looking forward to.
“Above all, I’d like to face Ghana,” the Spain winger told AFP pre-tournament.
There wouldn’t be another Spanish player who’d be as keen about that matchup at this World Cup. For, one of the players Nico will be up against will be none other than his brother Inaki: Nico wearing Spanish red, Inaki – eight years elder to him – in Ghana’s colours.
“It’s that sibling rivalry. We could never have imagined that we would reach this level, two brothers playing for the same club (Athletic Bilbao), each one in a national team and at a World Cup,” Nico said, giving a glimpse into the competitive relationship between the brothers before quickly pivoting to the emotional.
The Williams brothers were born to Ghanaian parents, who had fled to Spain as refugees of the Liberian civil war.
“Seeing the suffering of my parents, what they have gone through…..they have given everything for us, my brother and I, suffered a lot for us, above all for me, (Inaki) had it a bit worse than me. My brother is protective of me, he wants to help me, and because of that I am the person that I am today.”
The suffering Nico spoke of features some 4,900kms of Sahara desert landscape, in temperatures that touched up to 50 degree Celcius. That was the distance and those were the conditions Felix Williams and his partner María Arthuer travelled to flee from Ghana’s capital, Accra, to get to the autonomous Spanish city on the north-west coast of Africa, Melilla. Quite a bit of it on foot. Barefoot. Details which Inaki wasn’t aware of until he turned 20. Maria, who was pregnant with her elder son during the journey but did not know, decided to share it all with him only two years after he made his debut for La Liga club Athletic Bilbao.
“They did part (of the journey) in a truck, one of those with the open back, 40 people packed in, then walked days,” Inaki told the Guardian last year. “People fell, left along the way, people they buried. It’s dangerous, there are thieves waiting, rapes, suffering. Some are tricked into it. Traffickers get paid and then halfway say, ‘The journey ends here.’ Chuck you out, leave you with nothing, no water, no food. Kids, old people, women. People go not knowing what’s ahead, if they’ll make it.”
When Felix and Maria finally did make it across the border to Melilla, the civil guard detained them when they told they were migrants and had no papers. Only after the couple told the authorities they were from a country at war, as advised in jail by a Catholic aid organisation lawyer, that they were offered political asylum in Bilbao.
Inaki would later learn that all of it wouldn’t have happened had his mother known she was carrying him at the time. “If I knew, I would have stayed,” she’d tell him.
Bilbao’s beloved, ignored by Spain
Inaki is now a club legend in Bilbao.
He’s played 236 matches in a row for the team, a La Liga record spread across six seasons that only came to an end this August after the striker sprained his right ankle ligament. It’s a feat unheard of in modern-day football, one that is a testament to Inaki’s fitness, drive and, most of all, technical abilities.
Since his debut in 2014 for Athletic Bilbao, the second oldest club in Spanish Primera Division, Inaki has featured in 286 appearances for the club, scoring 80 goals across all competitions apart from 48 assists. In 2022, he stands tall as one of the most important players in the club’s modern history.
However, despite his performances in top tier Spanish football, Inaki was given a cold shoulder by the national team for the longest time. His only start for Spain came in a 2016 friendly under World Cup against Bosnia and Herzegovina under Vicente Del Bosque. Since then, the Bilbao boy hasn’t been part of all four subsequent Spanish managers’ plans (Fernando Hierro didn’t get to choose the squad in his four match World Cup stint).
For young Nico on the other hand, the transition from Spanish U18s to U20s and then finally the senior side happened across a smooth three year timeline from 2020. In September, he received a call-up from Luis Enrique for the UEFA Nations League. A call that would propel him to Spain’s 26-player shortlist for the World Cup.
That bromance Nico talked about with his elder brother came about when the Williams’ learned about the news regarding their youngest.
“I started screaming in the living room at home and my mother hugged me and started crying,” Nico told Marca. “Even my brother stayed a while. He didn’t expect it either. He’s very happy for me, very proud. He told me that I have to work and keep my feet on the ground.”
As for Inaki, a homecoming would end the longest of his wait.
Return of the prodigal sons
After last year’s Euros, with another World Cup in sight and no Spain call-up on the horizon, Inaki would be enticed with another way to live his international football dream. An offer he did refuse.
“I’m grateful to where I grew and became who I am. Ghana tried to convince me, but I was born in Spain, in Bilbao. I won’t ever forget my family roots, but I feel Basque and can’t con anyone. I would be comfortable with Ghana, I’m sure, but I shouldn’t be there.”
But, a first trip with his brother to the family roots since becoming a professional footballer this summer would change that.
The Williams visited Accra, the city their parents had left, and Kumasi, the city which still housed their grandparents and extended family.
During the visit, their 90-year-old grandfather James took Inaki aside for the conversation and told him ‘it would be a dream’ for him to see Inaki wear a Ghana shirt. The player would share to Moviestar Football, “That cleared up any doubts. Fulfilling that for my grandfather decided it, I have made my whole family very happy and I represent what is in my blood.”
In September, when he played in his first match for Black Stars in Ghana, James told his grandson he ‘could die in peace’ now that he had seen the sight he so longed for.
Inaki’s dream would finally be fulfilled, well officially, a week ahead of the World Cup when he was announced part of Ghana’s 26-player-squad. The brothers would both play in Qatar. For the two countries that defined their stories, the stories of their parents, living the dream of their grandfather.
It was on that same trip that the two brothers had an epiphany.
“Recently, with Nico, we went for a walk and saw boys our age or younger working in the fields,” Inaki told Marca. “I told him, ‘F**k Nico, if it wasn’t because the parents crossed the way, we could be there.”
Hearing his brother, Nico added, “I felt a chill when he told me and I thought about it. They were kids younger than me and seeing them work like this makes you think that you are privileged, thanks to your parents.”
A thank you note they’ll leave as they live this World Cup.