Athletic Bilbao play the Spanish Super Cup final against Real Madrid on Sunday evening (7:30 p.m.) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, the Basques eliminated Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals thanks to a late goal from Nico Williams (2-1). The embrace of the young striker with his older brother Iñaki and the tears in the stands of their mother, Marta Arthuer, moved Spain and highlighted the extraordinary destiny of these two immigrants who became Basques, an absolute condition for wearing the striped jersey Athletic’s red and white.
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That two brothers play in the same team is a rarity. That two Africans of origin evolve for the « Leones » (Lions) of Bilbao is a first. That Iñaki (27) and Nico Williams (20) are of this world is a miracle. In 1993, their parents fled Ghana, crossed the Sahara desert, until they reached the Mediterranean. “They are superheroes for us, confided last year the eldest on Antena 3. They saw people die on the way, had to bury them themselves, drink their own urine. They were even detained as war refugees. My mother had me in the belly when she jumped the wall in Melilla (Spanish enclave located in the north of Morocco). She has an incredible merit, that of having thus played her own life and that of her future child. I never forget where I come from and what my parents went through.
A barefoot odyssey
His father Félix, who made the odyssey barefoot, escaped with injuries to his legs and the soles of his feet burned. In Andalusia, an association takes care of them and sends them to Bilbao, where they meet Iñaki Mardones, a former priest who takes care of them. “As I spoke English, I offered to welcome them, he tells the Time. We welcomed them in a house that belonged to Caritas and when Maria had contractions we took a taxi to the hospital. I stayed with Felix until the baby was born. To thank me, they named him Iñaki. What emotion, imagine the gift! I am very grateful to them.”
The Williams family then moved to Navarre, to Sesma, then to Pamplona, without losing contact with Iñaki Mardones. For his 3rd birthday, the benefactor offers his first complete Athletic Bilbao kit (shirt, shorts and socks) to young Iñaki. At 18, he received official equipment by joining the Lions training center, after being spotted at CD Pamplona. “Our section in Navarre told us about it, remembers Gontzal Suances, a short-lived pro who became a recruiter for the club of his life. I went back there four or five times, then he came to do some training so that we could gauge him. He was faster than the average player his age, he really stood out. Both in his movements and in the execution of actions.
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When he made his professional debut in 2014, Iñaki Williams became the first player of African origin to wear the colors of Athletic Bilbao, a club that only accepts players born in the Basque Country, with local ancestry or trained in a club of this autonomous community. He is today the symbol of a new social mix in Spain, like Ansu Fati (Barcelona) and Adama Traoré (Wolverhampton), two internationals. Before them, Vicente Engonga (born in Barcelona of Equatoguinean parents) and Marcos Senna (born in São Paulo, naturalized in 2006, winner of Euro 2008) were above all an exception.
Glued to each other
If Iñaki Williams (27) has only one selection with the A, in May 2016 against Bosnia, and he plans to play for Ghana, his brother Nico (19) could take over. Since the start of the season, the winger has participated in all of Athletic Bilbao’s La Liga matches and has moved to the Espoirs. “Nico has the nerve, he is not afraid to try, judge Gontzal Suances. He is very strong on both feet. Iñaki may not be as good, but he is a workaholic. He wants to improve all the time, he has a great strength of character.
The Williams brothers have always lived close to each other. “I was like a father to him, Iñaki told Antena 3. My father had to go to London because he couldn’t find a job in Spain. My mother worked at night, at the supermarket, at the airport, she did all the possible jobs. I took care of my brother, I took him to school, to training, I showered him, dressed him, I cooked him food. The father’s difficulties in integrating professionally illustrate a fundamental problem in a country where immigrants are still struggling to find their place.
“Africans are a very small minority in Spain and often in the shadows, regrets Ernestine Badjeketek, a Bilbao resident of Cameroonian origin who regularly visits San Mamés, the Athletic stadium. I don’t know of any black people with a position of responsibility in a town hall or in a hospital, as a doctor or even a nurse. They are always found in the hotel or cleaning trades. We are invisible.” Beyond the difficulties of integration, a latent racism is palpable in Spain. It interferes from time to time under the pen of certain sports journalists, who are the last to still use the term raza (race) to designate players.
Latent racism in football
In October 2020, journalist Salvador Sostres compared Ansu Fati to “a gazelle”, then immediately to “a very young black street vendor who suddenly starts running on Passeig de Gracia [grande avenue barcelonaise]when the police arrive. These remarks had angered Antoine Griezmann and Gary Lineker, in particular. « It’s disgusting, as if we had gone back 50 years, » was offended by the former English striker from Barça. Racism also sometimes invites itself onto La Liga pitches, as was the case during Valencia-Cadiz last April, when Juan Cala uttered insults to Mouctar Diakhaby, without any sanction being taken against the Andalusian player, for lack of evidence.
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Racism can also arise from the stands. In January 2020, Espanyol Barcelona supporters imitated monkey cries as Iñaki Williams rushed into the tunnel leading to the locker room. The Barcelona Public Prosecutor’s Office then opened the very first civil investigation into a racist act linked to a football match in Spain. The Basque striker then told the judge that he felt “humiliated” by the behavior of these two individuals.
The visibility of Iñaki Williams (who in October broke a thirty-year-old record for the greatest number of games played consecutively), the emergence of his brother, the talent of Ansu Fati are intended to change mentalities. “I want to see politicians who take the example of Iñaki and Nico, who have reached the top in their field, hopes Ernestine Badjeketek. I would like other children to follow in their footsteps, not only in football, but also in other sports and other fields.