By Richard Martin
BILBAO (Reuters) – Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams is known for being the fastest player in La Liga although it is his unique status at one of Spain’s biggest and most traditional clubs that really makes him stand out.
The 24-year-old, of Liberian and Ghanaian descent, is the only black player in the squad of the club, whose selection policy is restricted to only those who grew up inside the seven Basque provinces in Spain and France.
“I feel very proud to be black, to be Basque, and to play for Athletic,” Williams told Reuters in an exclusive interview at the club’s picturesque Lezama training ground, ahead of Friday’s local derby against Real Sociedad.
“There have been very few, but I’m one of them and I’m very happy to be the black guy that represents Athletic. This club gave me everything and I try to give them the best of myself.”
Athletic’s policy may appear restrictive but they are amongst the elite of Spain’s clubs, having won eight league titles and lifting the Copa del Rey 23 times.
This season they have held European champions Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw and last week came within six minutes of beating title holders Barcelona away from home, eventually having to settle for a draw.
“We’re a very humble club, a club from the Basque Country with only players from the Basque Country,” Williams added.
“We compete against teams which signs players from around the world but we have stayed as we are which makes us unique.
“Despite that, we have competed for trophies and along with Barca and Real we are the only team never to be relegated. We are admired a lot and fans see that we compete with people from our home. They see themselves reflected in us.”
Williams, who was born in Bilbao, however still finds it difficult to convince some he is a reflection of Basque society and frequently faces intolerant messages on social media.
“Some people are ignorant and think to be black you have to be born in Africa. No. I was born here, I feel Basque, just like my team mates,” he added.
“I have African blood but I grew up here, my family have adopted all the Basque customs and so have I.”
It has not been an easy path for Williams or his family, though. His mother fled civil war in Liberia and after meeting her husband in Ghana they emigrated to northern Spain, finding work on farms.
“It was tough, there were no Christmas or birthday presents but it’s the life I had to live and I’m not ashamed of it,” added Williams, who is named after a local priest who helped his parents settle into Bilbao.
“My parents had to work for everything and they’ve instilled that mindset into me.”
When Spain’s economic crisis bit, Williams’ father Felix moved to London in search of work, leaving Inaki with the bulk of responsibility for caring for his brother Nicolas, eight years younger and who currently plays for Athletic’s youth team.
“Our father could only come back for a few days per year,” Williams said. “He worked as a security guard and sent all the money he earned back to us.
“I became a father figure to my brother, I had to dress him, take him to school, help him with his studies.
“But that is what made me strong, and thanks to God now I have a comfortable life. My parents don’t need to work, now I can give them everything we didn’t have.”
His parents’ early struggles have made him acutely conscious of the refugee crisis currently haunting Europe.
“It hurts me a lot that people are being rescued from the sea and some say we shouldn’t help them,” he said. “You have to ask what you would do in that situation, if you could not afford to feed your children.
“People who escape from places where there is a war do so because they see no alternative.
“My parents were lucky enough to find good people that gave them a hand and that’s why I have been able to have the life I’ve had. If my parents hadn’t found these people I would have been born in Africa or I wouldn’t have been born at all.”
Williams’ interest in his African heritage compelled him to organise a trip with teammate Oscar de Marcos to Ghana in June with the aim to set up a foundation and build a school.
Those plans, however, were derailed by a call into the Spain squad ahead of the World Cup, although he did not make the final cut, and he plans to return to Ghana next year to finally set up the foundation.
Williams could yet play internationally for Ghana as his only appearance for Spain was in a non-competitive game, although he is determined to be recalled to Luis Enrique’s squad.
“My parents have met with the Ghana coaching staff and I have received calls, I don’t forget where my family came from,” he said.
“But on a sporting level it would be better to play for Spain. And I have to be grateful to the place that has given me everything.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)