During the regular La Liga season, Iñaki Williams, 28, and his younger brother Nico Williams, 20, proudly wear the same red-and-white striped jersey and have even made history on the pitch together.
In September, the Athletic Club Bilbao teammates both found the back of the net in a 3-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano, making them the first brothers in 17 years to score a goal for the same team during the same La Liga match.
Off the field, their bond is equally strong with Nico, a winger often gushing about his admiration for his older sibling, who plays striker.
But during the World Cup, their paths will diverge as they represent different countries in Qatar.
The younger Williams donned the Spanish national jersey when they kicked off the tournament in a 7-0 drubbing of Costa Rica.
While the elder will be suiting up for Ghana’s Black Stars, who open with Portugal on Thursday.
“I had to make a decision,” Iñaki told ESPN of playing for the West African nation. “It was a hard decision to make. I had many, many, many doubts and this might close other doors, but this is football. It’s part of life.”
If both Spain and Ghana advance out of the group stages and meet later in the tournament, Iñaki has said his mother Maria would have a “divided heart.” However, given the family’s remarkable origin tale, it would make for a storybook matchup.
In search of a better life, their parents left Ghana, crossing the Sahara on foot while Maria was pregnant with Iñaki. When they reached Morocco, they scaled a fence into Melilla, a Spanish territory where they were detained. According to The Guardian, a lawyer working with a Catholic charity advised them to rip up their papers, and say they were fleeing war-torn Liberia so they could be granted asylum. The couple then ended up in the Basque city of Bilbao, where their first son was born and named Iñaki, after a local priest.
The family relocated to Pamplona in the Basque province of Navarre, and their father Felix went to London in search of higher-paying work, leaving Iñaki to take on a father-figure role for his younger brother when he was born in 2002.
The Basque country which is an autonomous region in Northern Spain with it’s own distinct cultural identity, cuisine and language would be a fateful landing spot for Iñaki and later Nico in terms of their eligibility to play for Bilbao.
Since 1912, the club has adhered to an unwritten, antiquated policy where they exclusively field players from the Basque regions in Northern Spain and Southern France. Even with its narrowed talent pool, the club is only one of three La Liga teams that hasn’t ever been relegated from the top division.
“Bloody hell, incredible. Everything happens for a reason,” Iñaki told The Guardian in 2021. If I hadn’t been born in Bilbao, I could never have played for Athletic. My parents crossed the desert and were taken to the Basque country. That doesn’t feel like chance.”
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Iñaki made his debut for Athletic Bilbao in December 2014, becoming only the second player of African descent to play for their first team. And a few months later, he became the first black player to score for the squad, thus writing a new chapter for a club that has remained faithful to the more-than-century-old tradition.
“It gives me an immense pride to say that I am one of the first blacks to be a part of Athletic, score goals for the club and leave a legacy here,” he told ESPN back in 2019.
Gifted with speed and durability, he would also blaze a trail for Nico, who went up through the developmental ranks of Athletic Bilbao and was called up to the first team in April 2020. The siblings have gone on to dazzle and charm the fan base, and they represent the changing current of potential soccer talent for Athletic Bilbao, as immigration from African countries has turned the once all-white area into an increasingly multicultural one.
As for their national affiliations, Nico played his first game with Spain’s senior squad this fall around the same time that Iñaki, who made a brief appearance in 2016 for Spain, took his spot on the Black Stars’ roster.
Now nearing 30, Iñaki has acknowledged that he and his brother are at two different phases of their careers. He was motivated to play for his ancestral homeland after a heart-to-heart with his aging grandfather during a visit to Ghana this past summer.
“I told my grandfather, who told me it would be a dream for him to see me in the national team jersey. He is 90. He said he doesn’t have long to live, but that he would like to see me play in a World Cup with the national team. When he told me those words, I didn’t have to think anymore,” he said.
Regardless of the colors they are wearing in Qatar, the Williams brothers are also representing their family and the treacherous journey they took nearly 30 years ago.
“Everything my parents have done for me and Nico, what we can give back will never amount. But we try to say ‘thanks’ on the pitch so they can feel proud, seeing us achieve our dreams — and we’re only here because of them,” Iñaki said. “They taught us the value of hard work, education and that no one in life gives you anything so we’re here because of their sacrifices.”