David Cartlidge provides the lowdown on Spanish hotshot Inaki Williams, who's breaking Basque Country barriers...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: June 15, 1994
- Place of birth: Bilbao, Spain
- Height: 6ft 1in
- Position: Forward
- Current club: Athletic Bilbao (14 apps, 1 goal)
- International: Spain U21
A Liberian mother and a Ghanaian father, but a Basque soul.
Inaki Williams is not your stereotypical Athletic Bilbao player, but this certainly doesn't make him inferior to those who've gone before him. Telmo Zarra, Joseba Etxeberria, Agustin Gainza: just like all those great names, he was born within the Basque Country boundaries, in Barakaldo to be exact.
Through Lezama he has come, as did the aforementioned icons. His journey there was different to others', however. Williams' parents met in a Ghanaian refugee camp before arriving in Barakaldo, having fled Liberia. They lived there a year before 'Willy', as he’s known to his friends, was born.
Due to labour shortages, a move to Pamplona meant his parents worked by caring for animals. The move was good for young Inaki: there he was able to feature for several sports teams and was first seen by Javier Aristu, who discovered Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal among others. Athletic, ever attentive in the area, swooped for him.
In his first season at Juvenil level he scored 35 goals in 38 games, before injury shattered his ambitions of immediate progression. Even then in half a season, after being promoted to the club's B team, he managed eight goals in 14 games. He started the next season with them too, and after 13 goals Ernesto Valverde couldn’t ignore the young prodigy for much longer. Williams made his debut in December 2014, before becoming the first black player to score for the club in February, against Torino in the Europa League.
Why you need to know him
Williams may well be about to become the main striker at Athletic Club, with a view to leading the forward line for the next decade. His emergence reduces fears of Artiz Aduriz’s eventual retirement, and although there's no signs of decline from the 34-year-old, he cannot go on forever.
The 20-year-old also represents a further shift in culture at the club. All those before him, such as Fernando Llorente, Enrique Sola, Borja Viguera and Aduriz, have games based on a traditional Basque stereotype. How Athletic forwards should be formed, essentially.
Williams is different. Although he boasts excellent physical qualities, his approach to the game is unique. It's based more on speed, ability to dribble with the ball, creating one v one situations and versatility across the frontline. It could be argued his promotion to the first team is the single most important since Iker Muniain’s in July 2009, from both a playing point of view and those issues away from the pitch.
Athletic have struggled for years with this shift. Even the inclusions of players from areas outside of Bilbao have caused unease among the more hardcore legions of fans. Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta, now of Fulham, suffered abuse for their upbringing outside of traditional lines.
Now the issue has to be dealt with head on. A black player could be leading the Athletic line for some time, but as he told one analyst asking him about his origins, he was born in the same Bilbao as everyone else. Williams deserves as much of a chance as those players, and at the moment he’s taking it.
His performances since joining the first team have been nothing short of outstanding. He’s helped Athletic to a Copa del Rey final, and it’s no surprise that an upturn in what had been a miserable season has coincided with Williams' emergence.
His positioning as a second striker alongside Aduriz, or on the wing of a three, has reinvigorated the team. He’s enthusiastic, possesses technical qualities and is facilitating the impressive form of others. Aduriz isn’t as burdened, while Muniain’s move into a central role is down to Williams claiming a first-team place.
There's no doubting the ability: mixing strong physical and technical assets makes Williams a special threat to opponents. Coming in at 6ft 1in, he can hold defenders off and get his body between the ball and man, brushing them aside with good upper-body strength. Williams also boasts great acceleration both with and without the ball, a vital dribbling ability, and is now showing a keenness to press from the front.
His versatility is becoming key too: he can play down the middle as an out-and-striker, but also in a wide role. Williams likes to stretch defences, drag players out of position and create space for himself and others.
This is Williams' debut season with the first team, so the rawness in many areas of his game is still evident. Despite his hot streak in front of goal with youth teams, that’s yet to transfer to the bigger stage and more composure in front of goal is needed. At times his first touch can be heavy too, with Williams perhaps a little over-eager receiving the pass instead of anticipating movement around him.
"We have many good attackers, Inaki is one of them and he can give us an important contribution with his qualities and skills," said boss Valverde. "When a forward scores, he always deserves to be praised. He has pace and strength. Maybe I will use him in the same position as a striker, but he can be as dangerous also when he starts from a deeper position."
Did you know?
Inaki’s brother, Nicholas, is also on Athletic's books. Los Leones took him from Osasuna aged 10, and now at 12 he is having similar goalscoring success as big brother Inaki. The Williams family dream is to see the pair play together in the red and white of Athletic.
What happens next?
Williams' career is certainly moving fast. A new professional contract has been signed until 2017, while he’s also received his first call-up by Spain, at under-21 level.
However, the Ghana FA have already declared their intentions to persue his services. "All is not lost since he is yet to play for the senior team," said GFA communications director Ibrahim Sannie Daara. "We want him and have made contact with his club. We want to use means through his father to see if we can woo him."
But Inaki's next target, without doubt, is becoming a regular in Athletic’s first team, and replicating his goal haul from the youth categories. Born of war he may be, but the 21-year-old is now feeling the love. "Inaki, Inaki, Inaki" is now sung at San Mames, for a new Basque icon who's fast emerging.