During the regular La Liga season, Iñaki Williams, 28, and his younger brother Nico Williams, 20, proudly sport the same red and white striped jersey and have even made history together on the pitch.
In September, Athletic Club Bilbao team-mates scored both goals in a 3-2 win over Rayo Vallecano. This made them the first brothers in 17 years to score in the same La Liga game for the same team.
Off the field, her bond with Nico, a winger who often raves about his admiration for his older brother who plays forward, is just as strong.
But their paths will part during the World Cup as they represent different countries in Qatar.
The younger Williams donned the Spain national shirt as they opened the tournament in a 7-0 win over Costa Rica.
While the oldest will line up for Ghana’s Black Stars, who open with Portugal on Thursday.
“I had to make a decision,” Iñaki told ESPN about playing for the West African nation. “It was a difficult decision. I had many, many, many doubts and that could close other doors, but that’s football. It’s part of life.”
If both Spain and Ghana progress out of the group stage and meet later in the tournament, Iñaki said his mother Maria would have a “divided heart”. However, given the family’s remarkable origin story, it would make for a fairytale matchup.
In search of a better life, her parents left Ghana and crossed the Sahara on foot while Maria was pregnant with Iñaki. Upon reaching Morocco, they climbed over a fence into Melilla, a Spanish territory, where they were arrested. According to The Guardian, a lawyer working with a Catholic charity advised them to tear up their papers and say they are fleeing war-torn Liberia so they can be granted asylum. The couple then ended up in the Basque city of Bilbao, where their first son was born and was named Iñaki, after a local priest.
The family relocated to Pamplona in the Basque province of Navarre and her father Felix went to London in search of better paying work, leaving Iñaki to take on a father figure for his younger brother when he was born in 2002.
The Basque Country, an autonomous region in northern Spain with its own cultural identity, cuisine and language, would be a fateful landing spot for Iñaki and later Nico in terms of their Bilbao eligibility.
Since 1912, the club has maintained an unwritten, antiquated policy of only fielding players from the Basque regions of northern Spain and southern France. Despite their limited talent pool, the club is just one of three La Liga teams never to have been relegated from the top flight.
“Damn it, unbelievable. Everything happens for a reason,” Iñaki told The Guardian in 2021. If I hadn’t been born in Bilbao I would never have been able to play for Athletic. My parents crossed the desert and were taken to the Basque country. It doesn’t feel like coincidence.”
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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 the first team. And a few months later he became the first black player to score for the team, writing a new chapter for a club that has stayed true to a tradition spanning over a hundred years.
“It fills me with great pride to say that I’m one of the first black people to be a part of Athletic, scoring goals for the club and leaving a legacy here,” he told ESPN in 2019.
Gifted with speed and stamina, he would also pave a way for Nico to rise through the development ranks at Athletic Bilbao and earn a first-team call-up in April 2020. The siblings have dazzled and charmed the fan base. and they represent the changing stream of potential football talent for Athletic Bilbao as immigration from African countries has transformed the once all-white territory into an increasingly multicultural one.
As for their national affiliations, Nico made his debut appearance with Spain’s senior team this autumn, around the same time that Iñaki, who briefly represented Spain in 2016, took his place in the Black Stars squad.
Iñaki, who is now approaching 30, has admitted that he and his brother are at two different stages in their careers. He was motivated to play for his ancestral homeland after meeting his aging grandfather during a visit to Ghana last summer.
“I told my grandfather who told me it would be a dream for him to see me in the national team jersey. He’s 90. He said he didn’t have long to live but he would like to see me play with the national team at a World Cup. When he said those words to me, I didn’t have to think anymore,” he said.
Regardless of the colors they wear in Qatar, the Williams brothers also represent their family and the treacherous journey they embarked on nearly 30 years ago.
“Everything my parents have done for me and Nico, what we can give back will never be high. But we try to say ‘thank you’ on the pitch so they can be proud when they see us making our dreams come true – and we’re only here because of them,” said Iñaki. “They taught us the value of hard work and education and that nobody in life gives you anything, so we’re here for their sacrifices.”