Athletic Bilbao

‘It’s incredible,’ says Inaki Williams, and he’s not just talking about the new LaLiga record he set last week for not missing a game in five-and-a-half years.

He’s talking about the whole story. His story, one that begins with his parents crossing the Sahara desert to reach Spain as immigrants from Ghana, and ends with him establishing himself at the only club left in Europe that doesn’t allow players born outside the region.

‘It just makes me very proud to wear this shirt,’ Williams says. ‘And for people to feel proud that I am part of Athletic’s history.’

In one of the family pictures he shares with us, he is already in an Athletic Bilbao shirt aged three posing in front of a beaten up television perched on an industrial cable reel that’s being used as a makeshift table.

Life was tough growing up but any hardships pale into insignificance when compared with what his mum Maria and his father Felix went through.

For many years they were reluctant to share too many details with him, believing the harrowing story would be, as the Spanish phrase has it ‘like stones in the backpack’ weighing him down as he tried to make it as a professional.

It was after he had made his debut at Athletic that his mum sat him down and told him the full story.

‘It didn’t completely surprise me when they told me, but hearing the story in detail still left me cold,’ he says. ‘It was the kind of thing you imagine only happens in films.

‘They crossed the Sahara, in part on foot and in part on the back of a pick-up truck with forty other people.

‘Many were left along the way; people they had to bury, people who were deported. There were thieves who stole their money, there were rapes, there was a lot of suffering.

‘My mum said that if she’d known they would suffer so much on route she would never have set off. Lots of people are conned into it by traffickers who prey on their ignorance of what the journey will be like.

‘They force people to pay up front and then halfway through the journey they say: ‘get out, this is the last stop’ and they leave you there stranded with nothing: you have no water, no food. There are kids there, old people, lots of women too.’

Inaki’s mum was unaware of it at the time but she was in the early stages of pregnancy with him. ‘We could have been abandoned along the way; we might not have made it,’ he says.

He believes it was destiny that they did make it, and destiny again that once they had crossed the border at Melilla – the Spanish enclave north of Morocco – his parents were sent to the Basque region of Spain where he was born, making him eligible to play for Athletic Bilbao.

‘Destiny wanted me to be born in Bilbao and now I am a player for Athletic, and my brother [Nico, eight years younger] plays for them too.

‘There are lots of people who make it to Europe and then don’t have the good fortune, or don’t find people who help them. We found people that helped us.’

He is named Inaki after a Spanish priest who baptised him and helped the family settle. And he’s grateful to a lawyer who advised Maria and Felix after they had ‘climbed the fence’ at Melilla and were detained by Spain’s Civil Guard before being given asylum.

The problems did not end there. ‘This was 28 years ago,’ says Iñaki. ‘At that time in Spain there was not as much immigration.

‘My parents took jobs that no one else wanted. My father worked as a shepherd, cleaning up on building sites, jobs that pay just enough to survive.’

In 2006 there was another life-changing decision to be made – one that could have taken Inaki to England.

‘I was about 11 or 12 and things were very bad in Spain,’ he recalls. ‘The financial crisis started and my dad lost his job. My mum went some time without working too and we had to pay the rent and the bills.

‘My little brother was tiny, just two or three years old. And they had to feed us, so my dad went to London to work.

‘He worked in a shopping centre cleaning up the tables in the food hall, sometimes as a security guard, he even worked tearing the tickets at Stamford Bridge.

‘After a couple of years he said the whole family should move to London but we were settled in Pamplona [just south of Bilbao] and my mum wanted us to stay there.

‘For about ten years I would practically only see my dad once a year. He didn’t have the money to take flights.’

What begins to emerge at this stage of the story is Inaki’s sense of duty to make it as a player and help the family.

‘I knew that if I made it, I would solve so many problems,’ he says. ‘I had the dream of being a footballer but I also dreamed of reuniting my family.

‘That’s why my debut is so special to me, not just because it was my first game but because it meant I could bring my dad back from London.

‘It meant being able to have some economic stability. And it brought that family union that we wanted so much.

‘Whatever I do in my life I will never be able to repay them because they risked their lives for our benefit. But the life I now try to give my parents is the one that they dreamed of giving us. And in some way, we can say: “we’ve done it.”‘

That was certainly the feeling last Friday when Williams clocked up record-breaking consecutive game No 203. It’s hard to know what’s more incredible: avoiding injury or suspension?

‘I have to thank my parents for the genes they passed on to me,’ he says. ‘I’ve been lucky too. I don’t know what it is but there’s something in my body that doesn’t want me to get injured.’

He’s avoided suspension too. ‘There were two years when I was on four yellow cards going into the final weeks of the season but I’m not someone who protests a lot or kicks anyone so I was quite relaxed about it.’

The way he conducts himself is another reason why he liked and respected, and not just by Athletic supporters. But he’s also encountered the scourge of racism.

Two seasons ago he was abused at Espanyol’s stadium as he walked around the perimeter of the pitch after being substituted.

He did not hold back in responding to the monkey chants and he’s advocated both walking off the pitch if the situation demands it, and for speaking up whenever the opportunity arises.

‘A lot of the time footballers don’t want to risk speaking out; they don’t always say what they really think,’ he says.

‘I think we should. It’s good for society, not just for us, to try to end something that’s unjust. If you have the power to reach so many people you should speak out.

‘Racism is a stain on the sport that needs to be completely eradicated. Being permissive allows it to continue.

‘We have to cut it out entirely. The society we live in has to improve and for that to happen the generation coming through has to see that we are all just people, that we are equal, and that we have to help each other.’

Williams now has two weeks without a game because of the international break. It remains a dream to establish himself in the Spain team having only played for them once in 2016. Playing for Ghana would have been an easier route but it’s not one he considered.

‘They tried to convince me but I was born in Spain,’ he says. ‘I don’t forget my origins, my family’s roots but I feel Basque and I can’t con anyone. I wasn’t born in Ghana and I wasn’t raised there.

‘I don’t have my roots and culture there, I think there are players for whom it would mean more.’

He’s visited the country, speaks to his grandparents on the phone in the Ghanaian language ‘Twi’, and he says his mum still swears at him in Ghanaian if he misbehaves, but he adds: ‘I don’t think it would be right for me to take the place of someone who really deserves to go and who feels Ghana 100 per cent.’

Spain has a striker crisis and aged 27 it’s not too late for a call-up at some point in the future.

The future will also see him miss a game at some point, surely?

‘I have got used to being five and a half years in a row playing, always in the squad,’ he says. ‘When I don’t play it will feel very strange!’

In the Spain squad or not, and regardless of how long he maintains his consecutive appearances record, you get the feeling that Williams’ place in Athletic’s history is set.

And it’s not really the record that has made it so.

‘People have a lot of empathy for my story,’ he says. ‘Everything I have done has been with hard work and when they hear what has happened, when they hear what our parents went through for us, I think Athletic fans like that.

‘That’s sacrifice, that’s a willingness to compete against the odds. I think people identify with that.’


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