Iñaki Williams: “Playing for Ghana allows me to get closer to my roots” | World Cup 2022

Tthere’s a gleam in Kweku’s eyes. “It’s just unbelievable, crazy,” he says. “You see it from the outside and it’s amazing. You live it from the inside and it’s even more amazing. It’s like a master. I learn something new every day and also about myself. I internalize more. There were things I didn’t think of before, and now I do.”

This isn’t just a World Cup. For Iñaki Williams, this is transformative, life changing, another man by another name. Here he is Kweku, born on a Wednesday. And he’s beaming.

Back home, both houses, his family too. Especially his proud 90 year old grandfather Richard who made this possible. On the other side of Doha, 11 km and a whole world away, so is his little brother Nico. Until now inseparable, also teammates, they made their international debut a day apart but for different countries, Nico joined Spain while Iñaki, now 28, finally agreed to play for Ghana.

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“It allows me to get closer to my roots, my culture, what my parents inculcated,” says Iñaki. “I am proud of everything I see, live and represent your country. I am very, very happy to have made this decision.”

It shows. It also took a long time. Williams was 20 when his mother Maria finally told him the full story: how she was pregnant with him, when she and her husband Felix crossed the Sahara by truck and barefoot and climbed the fence into Spain. Born in Bilbao, he was in Athletic’s first team at the time, for whom he has now played 246 league games in a row. He played for Spain once, in a 2016 friendly, but resisted overtures from Ghana.

“I feel Basque and I can’t betray anyone,” Williams said in October 2021, explaining that he didn’t think it was right to take the place of another player for whom playing for Ghana was everything. “When the federation president came to Bilbao in March or April to convince me, I replied with the same words I said to you. When I said that, I felt it. And a part of me often still feels it.”

What has changed? As I sit here and listen to him, the answer seems obvious: everything. But that came next. First came the way here. “Until the president came, I didn’t really have a 100 percent chance. But I still said no,” says the striker. “They told me to think about it. I didn’t have to make a decision overnight.

“I spoke to my parents and it made them happy to think that I play for the country they come from, where they feel loved, where we have family. But I wasn’t sure. I could miss important games for Athletic, which could be a problem. You keep thinking, turn it around. Then Ghana reached the World Cup and I won’t lie, that helps. But I still wasn’t clear.”

Iñaki Williams celebrates Ghana's friendly win over Switzerland shortly before the World Cup.
Iñaki Williams celebrates Ghana’s friendly win over Switzerland shortly before the World Cup. Photo: Laurent Gilliéron/EPA

Ghana were and they weren’t going to give up. “The trainer [Otto Addo] called several times. They wanted to show me how eager they were, their affection for me, what a good footballer they thought was a good footballer. But I still wasn’t sure until this summer when I went to Ghana with my parents, family and girlfriend. We visited the country, family in Accra and Kumasi. It was emotional, like the whole city was waiting, when I got out of the car. It was unbelievable, unbelievable. And then everything changed.

“I talked to my grandfather about it. I told him that there is a chance I could play for Ghana at the World Cup and what did he think. He said right away that he didn’t have long to live and that he dreamed of his grandson playing for Ghana. There was nothing more to think about.”

Richard told his grandson he could now die a happy man. “It was very emotional,” says Williams. “We never had much personal contact. They were in Ghana, I was in Spain, although there were calls. Every time he talks about his grandson, it fills him with pride.

“I was afraid to make that decision because that’s where people would think. What people in Spain thought didn’t bother me. Little did I know that in Ghana I would be seen as one of them. But there was no rejection anywhere. Every message was positive.

“I spoke to the captains: Jordan [Ayew]Thomas [Partey] and Daniel Amartey. I wanted their view because I didn’t want to cause problems and they were super open minded. Even people like Asamoah Gyan, Michael Essien, Icons have come forward to say how happy they would be if I was there.

“I now know one of the reasons why people in Ghana smile and that’s football,” says Williams, but he goes deeper. He found a place, something new; he found himself too. He says he feels more Ghanaian now, right down to the name: “Everyone in the national team calls me Kweku, like my parents and my Ghanaian family. You get the name after the day you were born.”

When everything is different, there is a certain familiarity. From the language – his English is getting better by the day, say FA staff – to the pre-game routines, the music and even the traditional dress Ghana wore on arrival.

“My mom was happy with the photos,” says Williams with a grin. “Nico and I grew up with it. I’m used to the food too. I’m a big fan of my mom’s Ghanaian rice. I love being part of this culture, being able to live it here. I know many of the songs because we sang in church to bring good luck. My parents used to sing others to us when we were little. I can understand the language, Twi, and make myself understood.

“The dressing room is very different than in Europe. At Athletic we pray together, arms around our shoulders, but here again it’s a step with music, merriment and people dancing. A different mood. It was a nice surprise. There are things I would like to bring back into the Athletic dressing room.” Williams laughs. “I send videos to them [Athletic] team chat They find it incredible. The culture is totally different. I’m from Europe, my friends are European, Basque. It brings me closer to my roots.”

Inaki Williams

to yourself? “Yes,” he says. “I spoke to you [club-mate] Óscar de Marcos about it. One of the things that struck me the most is that I’m used to being in a dressing room where everyone is white except me and my brother. Now to the right, to the left, to look at the man in front, to have the feeling that many went through something similar to yours, that their childhood wasn’t easy either, or that their parents also had to emigrate, means that I identify with myself.”

Ghana are in a group – with Portugal, Uruguay and South Korea – where “you can be first, you can be last,” says Williams. He talks about Son Heung-min, Lee Kang-in, laughs at memories of a kick from Pepe, “one of the toughest defenders I’ve ever faced” and defends Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Lord of the Gates,” Williams calls him. “People have not always respected a player who gave so much to football, who many of us grew up admiring for his football, his great goals and his tireless work.”

But it’s Uruguay in the final group game that worries them the most. “It’s an unfinished business, I know, I know,” says Williams. “When the draw took place, I read people on Twitter who already had the knife between their teeth. It’s a game circled on the game schedule list. Hopefully we can do it with six points and fight for first place.”

Walk through and the most recognizable face of them all may be waiting for you on the other side. Ghana could meet Spain in a quarter-final at the earliest, Inaki could meet Nico. They’re in the same town but haven’t seen each other, and that’s perhaps the longest he’s gone without seeing the brother, to whom he was effectively a father, Williams says. He admits asking Athletic and Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón to keep an eye on Nico. “But Nico is easy, there are young players that he knows and from what he tells me and from what I’ve seen he’s enjoying it a lot. I would like to have my brother here.”

He would like that too. “I really want to play against an African nation,” says Williams. “I understand people might have doubts, but I’m committed. Having the World Cup is important – I prefer Ghana to be there 1,000 times over – but I give my word: I will play against the African nations, qualifiers, everything because I love football and I love it so much, the Ghana shirt to wear.”

For Williams, the World Cup is huge, but not an end in itself. Instead, it has proven to be the beginning of something bigger, deeper. “A family from Ghana arrived this morning,” he says. “I hope to see her before I play, to hug her and let her fill me with positive energy.

“I spoke to my grandfather and he is so proud and excited for me to play. I miss my brother but it’s for a good cause. You don’t play at a World Cup every day. I will follow him, he will follow me and hopefully our paths will cross and we can “paint their faces”, touch them up.

“It would be incredible for two brothers to play each other at this level and I really hope that happens. God willing my grandpa is sitting there watching the game on December 9th and wants me to beat Nico.”

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