Inaki Williams: ‘My parents risked their lives to provide for me and Nico – World Cup is for them’


“For my parents, it was not easy to accept, but in the end my grandfather helped me make the decision,” Athletic Bilbao centre-forward Inaki Williams tells The Athletic.

“He wanted me to fulfil his dream, to see me as a Black Star with the Ghana national team. The truth is that all I achieve with this team is for him.”

The decision to represent Ghana was not easily taken by Bilbao-born Williams, who as a youngster had played for Spain’s underage teams and gained one senior cap for them in a friendly in 2016.

His parents’ misgivings came from their knowledge of the excitement and pressure which the Black Stars generate in their home country. But the 28 year old, who remembers cheering from the Basque country in 2010 as Ghana reached a World Cup quarter-finals, would be more than happy to live through such an experience with his new national team.

“My parents, above all my mother, know how they live football in Ghana,” Williams says. “They know there is so much passion. And thought that would be a lot of pressure for me. But for me it’s just the opposite. It is a motivation, I am coming here to help as I can, to put my grain of sand, and give everything I have in every game, every training session. Having the opportunity to play in this World Cup is a dream come true. I hope I can enjoy it and take Ghana as far as possible.”

As Williams performed regularly for Athletic in La Liga and UEFA club competitions through recent seasons, the Ghanaian federation kept in touch about switching allegiance, but he had always decided to keep his options open.


The decision to finally declare for the country which his parents left just before he was born came last summer, after he had visited Accra along with his partner Patricia Morales, and his younger brother Nico.

“It was an incredible trip,” Williams says. “I enjoyed it so much — the city, the people, all the culture, all the history. I wanted to show my girlfriend too what Ghana is like, for her to get to know my family. I also wanted to get to know part of the culture. I had been many years without going, I was very small the last time I visited. I really want to return next summer now.”

In June, the brothers spent time at his grandparents’ house, met many within his large extended family, visited some local schools and spent time getting to know about life in Ghana.

“I have practically all my family there — on my father’s side there are six brothers, on my mother’s side four sisters,” Williams says. “So I have a load of cousins, uncles, aunts, second cousins, so many people there. The family is involved in agriculture, cultivating cocoa, rice. They work very hard, grow crops to sell. They are doing very well in that. And they are all so happy to see someone from their family representing the Ghana senior team.”

Williams’ parents Maria and Felix left Accra in 1993, setting off on a dangerous and gruelling 4,000-kilometre overland journey so that Inaki (and later, brother Nico, eight years younger) would have more opportunities as they grew up in Europe.

“There is nothing I could ever do to return to them all they have done for us,” Williams says. “They risked their lives so that we, my brother and I, have a better future. And they achieved that. I will forever appreciate what my father and my mother did for us — they are fighters, they instilled in us respect, hard work, every day, that nobody gifts you anything. The truth is I am so proud to be able to have them as parents, and I try to do everything possible so that they feel proud to have me as a son.”

Williams’ parents avoided talking about their journey when their children were younger. He was 20 before his mother told him how she and her husband had crossed the Sahara by truck, and by walking barefoot over burning sand, before reaching the Spanish city of Melilla on the north coast of Africa.

“My mother was pregnant with me,” Williams says. “They crossed part of the Sahara desert, on foot, leaving many people behind. The route was not easy. They arrived at Melilla, and climbed over the fence there. They knew that they would be arrested, and that they would be deported. They met a lawyer who told them to tear up all their Ghana documents, and say they came from Liberia, which was then at war, so that they could apply for political asylum. That is how it was.”

Thanks to aid from the Catholic organisation Caritas, the couple ended up in Bilbao, where their first son was born in the city’s Basurto hospital. He was named after Basque priest Inaki Mardones, who helped the family and also gifted the baby his first red and white striped Athletic jersey.

The family soon moved south to Pamplona — where Felix found different jobs in agriculture and construction, while Maria also worked long hours as a cleaner. Felix later moved to London to earn more money to support the family, and worked for a while on the turnstiles at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, but was able to return by the time his eldest son had turned professional and made his La Liga debut in December 2014.

“Everything happens for a reason, destiny wanted me to be born in Bilbao, so I was able to play for Athletic Club,” Williams says. “The culture I grew up in, all my friends, at school, the people around me, were Basque, in Pamplona and Bilbao. When I got home, the culture my parents instilled in me was from Ghana.“

“You can have two feelings — I have the Basque culture and the culture and blood of Ghana. I have the two nationalities now, and I am very happy, very proud, to be able to represent both, and make many people happy.”


Williams became the first black goalscorer in Athletic club history by scoring against Torino in the Europa League in February 2015. He was soon a regular starter, if not always regular goalscorer, in a team seen by some as a sort of unofficial Basque national side. A place in the club’s history was cemented with the winning goal in the 2021 Spanish Supercopa victory over Barcelona.

In April 2016, he began an incredible run of appearing in every La Liga game — a record which is at 247 consecutive Primera Division appearances. This is even more remarkable given the explosive physical nature of Williams’ play as a dynamic attacker. He has played with knocks and niggles, a further example of his family heritage of sacrifice and perseverance.

“I have very good genes,” Williams says. “My grandfather is 90 years old but still goes for his walk every morning, three hours out in the fields. Obviously, you also have to try and look after yourself well, eat well, rest well, and have a quiet life. That all helps me to be available whenever the coach wants me. It is a lot of games — it seems crazy.”

Not everyone has been so accepting of Williams and others from different backgrounds playing football in Spain.

In August 2016, when Athletic visited Sporting Gijon’s El Molinon stadium, referee Carlos Clos Gomez stopped the play after hearing “monkey chants” aimed at Williams coming from the stands. Visiting Espanyol’s RCDE Stadium in January 2020, Williams told a post-match interview he had suffered racist insults during the game. La Liga denounced that incident to the Spanish authorities, and a court case is still ongoing.

“They were situations which were quite tense, in the moment very unpleasant,” Williams says. “You would not wish that on anyone. But it shows there is racism in Spain. There is a part of society, very small, which still does not understand that we are all humans, independent of the culture, sex, or colour of the skin.

“That is a minority that we have to get rid of. In football and in life it cannot be tolerated, these situations. Those of us who love football have to give an example to the kids, educate them and enjoy your team, without caring about race, sex, or religion. Nobody is born racist, and it is something that comes with the education of every person.”

After making his decision officially last summer after returning from visiting his family in Accra, Williams was one of four new players included in Black Stars’ manager Otto Addo’s squad for September’s World Cup warm-up friendlies.

The introduction within the squad was helped by Williams’ knowledge of Twi, the language he speaks with his grandparents. His new team-mates called him Kwaku, a name given to boys born on Wednesdays. There were also bonding conversions around Ghanaian culture, food and traditions.

An important icebreaker was when he and other new squad call-ups, including former England youth player Tariq Lamptey of Brighton & Hove Albion, were asked to perform a dance on their first night in camp.

“I got into it, and gave it everything,” Williams says. “I hadn’t practised, but I just gave it everything. The truth is I used all the moves that I know. If you asked me for another, I wouldn’t have had one. It is a way of shedding any embarrassment, to laugh and it was a lot of fun. I am really grateful to all the team-mates who are helping me a lot.”

A few days after his dance, Williams made his Ghana debut against Brazil in France — coming on at half-time, with the game already decided after an outstanding Brazilian opening period. A few days later, he played 86 minutes of a 1-0 victory against Nicaragua in the Spanish city of Lorca.

More important than the results was the opportunity for Williams to get used to what Addo wanted him to add to the team, and for his team-mates to learn how they could best make use of his ability to lead the line at centre-forward.

“Before joining up, the boss explained his idea of play, his football concepts,” he says. “The truth is they fit perfectly with how I play. (Addo) told me to do what I had been doing with my club. To make runs for my team-mates. We have very good passers. I tried to stretch the team, so team-mates get to know me, how I move on the pitch.”

Whether a coincidence or not, just weeks after the elder Williams declared for Ghana last summer, the younger brother was called up by Spain’s senior side. So 24 hours after Inaki had played his first Ghana game against Brazil, Nico made his international debut against Switzerland in Zaragoza. The 20-year-old impressed when setting up the winner in La Roja’s other September friendly against Portugal, and has been named in Luis Enrique’s 26-man squad for the World Cup.


Nico and Inaki in action for Athletic (Photo: Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images)

This will mean some mixed feelings during the tournament in the Basque cities of Bilbao and Pamplona, where for cultural and historic reasons the people are often indifferent to the Spanish national team.

“There will be people in Bilbao supporting Ghana in the World Cup, I believe,” Williams says. “But they will also have Nico. So the people will have their hearts divided. They will support both of us.”

The Black Stars face a tough challenge in Qatar, having been drawn in Group H with their 2010 conquerors Uruguay, South Korea and Portugal, with the first group game on November 24 against Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and company at Stadium 974 in Doha.


Qualification could be a step towards a potential quarter-final meeting with Spain. So what will Maria and Felix do if their two sons were to meet at a World Cup, given their knowledge of just how big an occasion that would be for everyone in both countries?

“Yep, we have fantasised a lot about that,” Williams says. “It would be such a moment, I hope it happens. My parents would be able to enjoy it. And may the best player win.

“But hopefully that is Ghana. Having the opportunity to play in this World Cup is a dream come true. I hope I can enjoy it and take Ghana as far as possible.”

(Top photo: Getty Images)


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