Iñaki Williams: The Journey of Kwaku

It has been nothing short of a magnificent campaign for Athletic Club de Bilbao. They have won their first major trophy in 40 years, edging Mallorca on penalties in the Copa del Rey Final, and they are all but guaranteed to finish in fifth place and qualify for next season’s UEFA Europa League. One player who has been indispensable for them is Iñaki Williams.

 

The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Iñaki Williams was born in Bilbao, the largest city in Spain’s Basque Country. Football came to Basque Country in the late 1800s via English dockworkers chasing steel fortunes in newly industrialized Bilbao, and the city’s signature club produced some of the most prolific Spanish goal scorers of the early 20th century.

 

 

While professional clubs have come to rely on imported talent from around the world, Athletic has fielded only players brought up through the ranks of the academy system or born in Basque. This team’s function is to “bring together a society that is traditionally very fragmented” said Beñat Zarrabeita, a reporter with Basque news channel Hanaika Talebista, whose father photographed the club’s most recent league championship in 1985. 

 

Felix and Maria Williams, Iñaki’s parents, relocated to Pamplona the capital of Basque province Navarre in search of work in the asparagus fields outside the city. Williams’ parents arrived in Europe with next to nothing, and the next decade proved to be a revolving door of jobs, on farms, for night cleaning services, at restaurants and airports in hopes of keeping the young family stable. 

 

With work drying up in Spain, his father moved to London and worked as a night security guard to send money back to his wife and son. Due to the long distance, Iñaki saw his father just 15 times over the next seven years, and though his mother worked nights to spend days with her son, he spent long days home alone, eating meals with family friends in the low income immigrant neighborhood of La Potxapea.

 

When his brother Nico was born in 2002, Iñaki was just 8 years at the time, and he had to take the responsibility of feeding his brother and brought him along every morning to play with friends in the street. Félix Tainta, a Williams family friend and Iñaki’s agent said, “Iñaki has matured very quickly, he had to be a dad to his brother and a support to his mother. Everyday that passes, that maturity has helped him. You can see he works differently on the field.”

 

 

The talented speedster caught Tainta’s eye as a young player for one of Pamplona’s local clubs, Club Natación. He had started playing with neighbors between aging apartment complex’s, passing much of his alone time with a ball at his feet. As a 10-year-old, Iñaki possessed a raw speed and hunger for goal that impressed the veteran agent from Pamplona.

 

After several meetings with Williams’ mother, Tainta helped Williams move to nearby CD Pamplona, and through an agreement between the club and Athletic Bilbao, Tainta was soon driving the young forward the three hours from Pamplona to Athletic’s Lezama training ground twice a week. Tainta even gifted Williams his first pair of leather cleats and frequently had him over for family meals.

 

The investment paid off, and an 18-year-old Williams signed with Athletic’s youth squad in 2012. He scored at a rate of almost a goal a game (and finished the season with 36 goals) and put himself on the tip of the Athletic faithful’s tongues. The club holds particular importance for a young son of immigrant parents.

 

Two decades earlier, Félix and Maria Williams had left Ghana behind, crossing the Sahara in a walking caravan, evading Spain’s national police force and scaling the razor wire fences separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Like the growing wave of immigrants pouring into Europe, they had come to Basque Country seeking a future for their children.

 

 

When their son was born months later, they named him Iñaki after a local priest. It is a name inherently tied to the region and a nod to the culture into which their son was born. For Williams, that culture has always revolved around the red and white stripes of Athletic.

 

“Here in Basque Country, since you are born, since you are little, your biggest hope is to play for Athletic,” Williams said. “They are a humble team … that I have always identified with. I never wanted to be anything else but a player for Athletic.”

 

Williams realized that dream on December 6, 2014, when he started in front of a home crowd that included his family and friends from Pamplona. After his historic goal at Torino, the wiry forward hit his stride the following year, netting 13 goals across all competitions. In 2014, he called his father and told him it was time to come home.

 

In Santurtzi, a blue-collar suburb of Bilbao, the official Iñaki Williams Peña, a local fan club, has taken root. Thanks to the club president’s nephew, the peña has its own Iñaki Williams crest, blending the striker’s face with a lion, the mascot of Athletic Bilbao. Every game day, members fill up Bar Eurobilbo, with a group of old Bilbainossipping Patxaran and supporting an Athletic they might not have recognized 10 years before.

 

 

“We are still in the process of developing a new Basque society,” Zarrabeita said. “Sports is symbolic of this, and Athletic [Bilbao] is our reference.”

 

As Williams has gained acceptance among the Athletic faithful, he has continued the club’s unifying legacy. However, instead of bringing together villages throughout the Basque hillsides, Iñaki’s success has helped Athletic embrace the growing global current at home.

 

With Spain emerging from the shadows of the Franco regime and the country offering improved public services to immigrants, the migration of South Americans and Africans such as the Williams family to Basque Country increased from around 9,000 per year in 1992 to more than 41,000 per year by 2016, according to the latest data from the Basque Institute of Statistics.

 

In Williams, an expanding immigrant population has found both its bridge and its mirror, a connection to a foreign culture through a familiar face and a global game. “Lots of people of African descent see me and know it could be their kids tomorrow or the next day,” Williams said.

 

 

The first generation of Basques born to immigrant parents are now in their late teens and early 20s, and local clubs are witnessing a brand-new surge of talent. For a club such as Athletic, which must mine deeper into an increasingly thin player pool each year to stay competitive as top clubs around Europe inevitably swoop in for the best players — the likes of Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez and Aymeric Laporte have been sold in recent years — this evolution provides a unique opportunity for salvation.

 

In fact, for the first time, the club’s youth academy teams feature a growing collection of homegrown players of African and South American descent, including Williams’ younger brother, Nico. Williams, it seems, is the leading edge of a much larger movement. “Williams’ [story] is a form of visualizing what is happening here [in Basque Country],” said Hanneke Heuseveldt, the director of youth programs at the Red Cross in Bilbao.

 

Williams sings the Athletic hymn alongside his teammates but travels to Ghana to visit family in the offseason and is outspoken when it comes to his love of traditional African food. In fact, when the club isn’t on the road, Williams eats dinner at his mom’s house, forgoing regional delicacies such as pintxos (finger foods) and chuleton (T-bone steak) for fufu, a traditional Ghanaian pastry made with semolina or plantains.

 

Last season, Williams invited the team over for a home-cooked Ghanaian meal, and in addition to Spanish, he speaks Akan (Ghana’s most widely spoken language) and can communicate in Basque and English.

 

 

“People that come from other countries have it harder to integrate, but Williams is a model that can motivate them to chase their dreams,” said Heuseveldt. In 2014-15, head coach Ernesto Valverde handed Williams his LaLiga debut in a 0-1 loss to Córdoba CF. Initially, Williams began his first-team career as a right-winger, but when former striker Aritz Aduriz started to suffer with injuries, Athletic Club became more reliant on Williams as a no.9. 

 

On July 5, 2022, Williams announced that he was making himself available for the African nation in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and two months later, he received his first call-up for friendlies with Brazil and Nicaragua. He was selected in Ghana’s squad for the finals in Qatar; within the team, and he took the name “Kwaku” due to the day that he was born (Wednesday), a Ghanaian custom.

 

It was not an easy start for the Ghanaian born as he got his first goal for Ghana after a goal drought spanning 800 minutes and 12 appearances since switching nationalities from Spain to represent Ghana. Williams was also called up for the 2024 in the AFCON Ivory Coast (played in January 2024).

 

He’s a joy to watch whenever he plays for the national team. Kwaku is an incredibly powerful figure in the Black Stars national team. I’m not sure many true football fans understand these days how much of an effect an inspirational player can have on the fans of a national team but in Iñaki Williams, Ghana have a winner and he will definitely be the star man that can help the team to win trophies in the coming years.

 

 

He’s one of the best on the pitch and off the pitch too he’s doing marvelous things. Black Stars striker Iñaki Williams has constructed a hotel in his hometown, Akyem Achiase in the Eastern Region. The hotel contain beautiful conference room, a restaurant, guest rooms and many more facilities, and it was named after Athletic Club’s 39,000-seated capacity stadium San Mamés.

 

Pacey forward Iñaki Williams is definitely one of Athletic Club’s biggest stars and most important players. San Mamés loves nothing more than to watch a full-flight Iñaki gliding past opposing defenders. Fortunately, Athletic fans can keep doing so until 2028, as Williams has committed his long-term future to his boyhood club. 

 

His versatility and ability to play two positions effectively is very helpful, as it gives Valverde more options. But of course, Iñaki’s biggest asset is his pace, he regularly hits speeds in excess of 35 kph. When he gets going, it is devastating.  Perhaps more incredible is his consistency and resistance to injuries.

 

In 2021-22, Iñaki broke the long-standing La Liga record for consecutive appearances, playing his 203rd game in a row in the Matchday 9 fixture against Deportivo Alavés – a run which came to an end last year at an incredible 251 matches. So far, Iñaki has played almost 400 matches and scored 91 times for Athletic Club. Considering he has committed himself to the club until 2028, fans should expect to see him score many more goals.

 

By: Alfred Amoah / @Laka993

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Denis Doyle / Getty Images