Inaki Williams is one of their own. And few cherish their own like Athletic Bilbao.
For more than 100 years the Basque club have refused to consider anyone who isn’t. If you’re not born in the Basque Country, or formed as a footballer there, don’t bring your boots. There’s no game for you here.
Born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and a Liberian mother who fled civil war in Liberia, Williams is as Basque as they come. He has a Basque name. He speaks Basque. He’s a lifelong supporter of Athletic. And now, he’s their poster boy, the club’s most prized asset.
The 22-year-old is the face of the new at an institution that so values the old. In a UEFA Europa League match against Torino in 2014, Williams became the first black goalscorer in the club’s 117-year history – three years after defender Jonas Ramalho had become the first black player to represent the club.
Jonas had been born to a Basque mother and an Angolan father in 1993, one year before Williams arrived in Bilbao. Immigration to the region is a relatively new phenomenon; prior to that there simply weren’t black players from which to choose.
Williams didn’t so much choose Athletic as Athletic chose him. “They've given me everything,” he told Sportium of the institution he joined as a 16-year-old after being spotted starring for fourth-tier Basconia. “I love this club.”
A month previously his actions had spoken considerably louder than his words, giving the fans €50 million reasons to believe him when he responded to interest from Liverpool and Juventus by signing a new contract, more than doubling his previous release fee.
Selected as one of Goal’s 50 Rising Stars of FUT, Inaki Williams starred again this past weekend, driving Athletic to a fourth victory in six Liga outings – a run of form that has them back in the race for the Europa League spots in Spain.
Athletic took the lead in Osasuna after just 12 minutes, as the prolific Aritz Aduriz converted a low cross from Oscar de Marcos. And while he won’t be given an assist, it was Williams who made it.
Trapped in the corner, he checked back to draw in three defenders before flicking a wonderfully-disguised pass into the box for the onrushing De Marcos that sliced through the opposition in a heartbeat.
A dynamic, inventive and fleet-footed forward with a keen eye for goal, Williams has come of age this term. Saturday brought his 40th appearance of the season – the highest total in his professional career.
And after creating the first, Williams struck his fourth Liga strike of the season in style, collecting the ball back-to-goal before a first touch that saw him effortlessly spin in behind the Osasuna backline and send his shot into the far corner.
With Real Sociedad stumbling to a draw at home to Leganes and Villarreal suffering defeat to fellow Europa League hopefuls Eibar, Athletic are back in the chase.
“The others [slipped up] and we added three points,” said Williams. “We are managing to make up the gap.”
Athletic have never won a major continental title. They were Europa League runners-up in 2012 and Williams has now twice been part of sides that were eliminated before the quarter-finals.
Williams has already used the competition to write himself into the history books. Now he wants another go. Now he wants to go one step further for them – for his people.