FEATURE | World Cup One to Watch: Iñaki Williams

Just over a year ago, Athletic Club striker Iñaki Williams had waved away the likelihood of representing his home country. Born in Bilbao to Ghanaian parents, Iñaki still seemed to harbour no intention of putting on the Ghana shirt, explaining: “My parents are from Accra, but I wasn’t born there. My culture’s here and there are players for whom it would mean more. I don’t think it would be right to take the place of someone who feels 100% Ghanaian.”

Yet, 13 months after what seemed like a final slam of the door to the Ghana national team, Iñaki Williams has been named in the Black Stars’ 26-man squad for the World Cup in Qatar. Despite one cap for Spain and two for the Basque country, Iñaki will make his World Cup debut with Ghana this winter, having made his international bow for the African side earlier this year. Meanwhile, Iñaki’s brother, Nico, eight years his junior, will take to the pitch in Qatar in Spanish colours. Despite having won just two caps, Nico Williams has been chosen by Luis Enrique as a fiery impact player in a squad perhaps lacking the X-factor he can provide.

Iñaki burst onto the scene much like his brother as a rapid right-winger with an eye for goal. Similar to his brother, Iñaki won a Spain cap at a young age (22) and he would even be a stand-by for the Spain squad at EURO 2016. However, a major tournament trip never came to fruition and, in many senses, Nico is living Iñaki’s dream. Perhaps the lure of the World Cup has been too much for Iñaki or perhaps his parents have guided his change of heart but, irrespective of that, Nico’s rapid rise to La Roja elite shouldn’t distract from Iñaki’s World Cup debut.

Ghana have often been one of Africa’s brightest hopes on the world stage. In 2010, but for an unfortunate penalty miss by Asamoah Gyan, they would’ve become the first African country to ever reach the World Cup last four – on African soil no less. However, what followed the Black Stars in the aftermath of that heartbreak in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium has been a nightmare. Just a single point was won in the 2014 World Cup group stages before failing to qualify for 2018, not to mention the fact that Ghana haven’t won an AFCON in 40 years. The impassioned 30 million strong country has been crying out for another crack on the big stage. In 2022, they have just that, and Iñaki will be the talisman to lead Ghana from the front as they aim for redemption.

What makes Ghana’s shot at redemption that much more exciting is their Group H opponents. Portugal buried Ghana’s hopes of knockout stage World Cup football in 2014 and, more importantly, Ghana also face Uruguay again – the side that dashed their dreams in 2010. Luis Suárez’s infamous handball no doubt remains a scar on the collective footballing psyche of the Ghanaian players and people. The pair face-off in the final group game, potentially a decider on which team qualifies for the last 16. Iñaki Williams could become a Black Stars hero, writing himself into World Cup folklore, if he spearheads revenge on December 2nd.

At 28, Iñaki is entering the prime of his career. His indomitable fitness has seen him play for Athletic for an incredible 240 straight games in La Liga. He’s still one of the fastest players in the Primera Division while his work rate is unquestionable and his physicality and hold-up play often stand out. He is, without doubt, the most accomplished marksman in the Ghana squad, and demands a starting spot on merit.

Iñaki’s mother had crossed the Sahara desert barefoot while travelling to the place her sons have called home for their entire lives. Speaking to the Guardian last year, Iñaki poignantly reminisced on his memory of the tale. “Hearing my parents’ story makes you want to fight even harder to give back everything they sacrificed for us. I couldn’t ever repay them – they risked their lives – but the life I try to give them is the one they dreamed of giving us.”

It is perhaps this immense sense of gratitude that has ultimately driven his decision to play for the country of his parents’ birth. While his desire to wear red on the big stage has remained unfulfilled, the perfect opportunity to repay his parents comes through the pride of succeeding with Ghana. “Everything happens for a reason”, quipped Iñaki when talking about the fortunate arrival of his parents in Bilbao, that helped shape him into the player he is today. It is perhaps a saying that will resonate once again, as he seeks to achieve the impossible with the Black Stars.

Nico might be stealing the headlines – now the golden youngster out of the Athletic academy – but Iñaki has a bigger responsibility to bear. Ghana has offered him a lifeline to make his mark in the international arena, and a greater chance to inscribe his name alongside the extraordinary icons on football’s greatest stage.

Roddur Mookherjee | GSFN

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