The desert, a fence and a constant battle against racism: the Iñaki Williams story

The desert, a fence and a constant battle against racism: the Iñaki Williams story

María Arthuer had it clear in her mind.: she didn’t want her kids to live the same life as her. Along with her husband, Félix, they had to sit together and find a solution. Sacrifices had to be made, but they were willing to take the gamble.

It required 73 hours driving to reach Melilla, one of the two Spanish autonomous cities located on the north-west coast of Africa, from Accra, the capital of Ghana. However, back in 1994, driving wasn’t an option – it had to be done on foot. The distance between Accra and Melilla is around 5,000km, but every step they took to get there seemed the right thing to do.

The enormous Sahara desert was the first obstacle, but wasn’t all that stood in their way. Félix crossed the desert barefoot, while María was pregnant with their first son. On their way north they saw people losing their lives in their attempt to reach Europe. When they arrived at the border fence which separates Morocco from Spain’s north African enclave Melilla, they didn’t hesitate.

They both managed to jump over the fence, but they soon realised that they hadn’t reached the promised land. Police arrested them and sent them to the prison along with other Africans who attempted to reach the much-fantasised European safe haven.

While in jail, a lawyer approached them after being informed that María was carrying a child. He urged them to destroy their documents and pretend that they lost them on the way to Melilla. He advised them to state that they are from Liberia, a country in the midst of a civil war, and request asylum in Spain.

With the assistance of the humanitarian aid organisation Caritas, María and Félix were successfully granted permission to live and work in the Iberian nation.

Their journey wouldn’t end in Melilla. From there, they made it to Madrid, via Málaga, and a few weeks after leaving Africa reached their final destination, Bilbao. There they met a priest, Iñaki Mardones, who helped them to find a place to stay and settle in the Basque city. In Mardones, they had found someone they could call a friend – a person who could help them build a new life for themselves.

On 15 June, Félix asked Mardones to come over to their apartment. María was due to give birth any time soon. Mardones called a taxi and asked the driver to rush straight to the hospital. A few hours later, they welcomed their first child into the world. They asked Mardones to be his godfather and decided to name him after the priest who made it possible from them to lay the foundations. Enter Iñaki Williams Arthuer.

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Better days would come, but obstacles wouldn’t cease to loom. Félix couldn’t find a job in Bilbao and the family had to move again, this time to Pamplona. There he started working on a farm, while María took on multiple jobs to provide for her son. Meanwhile, Iñaki would gather along with other kids from their working-class neighbourhood, Rotxapea, and kick a ball around until way after dark.

On 12 April 2002, María gave birth to her second child, Nicholas. Iñaki was aware that sooner or later he should pitch in and do his part to assist his family. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back. “When I was 12 years old, one day I came home and there was nothing to eat, and the light didn’t even work, because we didn’t make ends meet and they had cut it off,” he recalled years later in an interview for El País. “There are things that make you keep trying hard every day. I dreamed of being able to support my family. The least I could do was to give [my mother] a better life to live. She has already worked and sacrificed herself enough to feed us every day.”

His father had to depart Spain and move to London, where he would work at a warehouse to help his family make ends meet. At the same time, Iñaki had put together a seemingly ambitious plan, which, if achieved, would offer them an escape from the dead-end once and for all.

He felt the need to seek a better future for his beloved ones – the same urge that led his parents to cross the desert in search of a new life. If the question was ‘how do you help your family survive?’, a kid’s answer couldn’t be other than ‘by playing football, of course’.

Iñaki’s talent stood out from an early age, joining Club Natación Pamplona. It wouldn’t be long until a big club would take notice. His displays had earned rave reviews as well as a visit from an Athletic Club scout, Félix Burgui, who also unearthed gems such as Javi Martínez, Iker Muniain and Mikel San José.

In 2008, Iñaki joined Athletic’s feeder team Club Deportivo Pamplona. That was a solid first step towards professional football, but with his family in need of supplemental income, he acted as referee in younger kids’ games, earning €10 per week while waiting to grab his chance.

The opportunity came four years later when Athletic came knocking. A door would open for Iñaki, who faced one of the toughest decisions in his life. At the age of 18, he was asked to move back to Bilbao and away from his family for the first time.

The path to fulfil his dream went through Athletic’s Lezama academy, where he suddenly found himself in the summer of 2012. In his first season, Iñaki netted 34 goals for the youth team and participated in the NextGen Series tournament alongside the likes of Kepa Arrizabalaga, Yeray Álvarez, Unai López and Real Sociedad’s current goalkeeper, Álex Remiro.

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The following summer, he was loaned out to Athletic’s feeder club and Spanish fourth-tier side CD Baskonia, before moving back to Bilbao to join Athletic’s reserves. He was the top scorer of the Segunda B, the Spanish third tier, with 11 goals in 15 matches when first-team striker Aritz Aduriz picked up an injury.

Ernesto Valverde turned to the academy and called him up for the game against Córdoba in December. Williams started in attack but couldn’t help his team avoid a 1-0 defeat to the Andalusian side. He moved back to the reserves but, by January, Valverde established him in the first-team squad.

It was a chilly but sunny day in Turin on 19 February 2015. The temperate was around five degrees when the Europa League anthem was heard through the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino PA system. A few minutes earlier, the stadium announcer communicated the names of Athletic’s starters, among them that of Iñaki.

Valverde gave the nod to his talented striker in the first leg of the round of 32 against Torino – and Williams rushed to pay back his coach’s confidence. Nine minutes into the game, Borja Viguera made a powerful run into the box from the left and put in a cross that found Iñaki all alone at the back post. The young striker sent it past goalkeeper Daniele Padelli to open the scoring for the visitors. He ran jubilant towards the corner flag, his teammates sprinting to celebrate with him.

“That day I did not expect to play,” he recalled in an interview for Movistar+. “When I scored the goal, I ran to the photographers shouting, ‘I’ve scored a goal; I’ve scored a goal’.”

It was around two months earlier when he took to social media to express his certainty that the best was yet to come. “Because dreams come true, everything comes for those who know how to wait,” he wrote. Iñaki is one of those who waited for that moment, a moment similar to the one when their parents jumped the fence in Melilla.

Williams didn’t have to jump any fences, but the obstacles were aplenty on his way to fulfilling his dreams. In a world that has yet to abolish phenomena such as racism and xenophobia, Iñaki had to deal with those who judged him by the colour of his skin. “There is always someone who makes a comment, even if it is not something [that happens] every day,” he told El Mundo in 2015. “There are people who hurt you with insults, but in football you don’t take it so seriously because the emotions of the game may lead to it. When they say ‘fucking black’ you try to pretend you don’t hear. On the street it is different, although I try to ignore it and continue.”

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And continue he did. After becoming the first black player to score for Athletic, he started establishing himself in the starting line-up. With Aduriz immovable upfront, Valverde had to move Iñaki to the wing, where his team could take full advantage of his tremendous pace.

For the seasons to come, Williams would be the fastest player in LaLiga, terrorising full-backs every time they were called to chase a loose ball. He rapidly became a vital cog for every Athletic coach and remains extremely popular amongst the fans.

After his goal in Turin, the Basque side offered him a contract renewal – and with his new salary, he was able to bring his family back together.

In August 2015, he lifted his first trophy. Although he missed both legs in the Supercopa de España due to injury, Valverde’s side beat treble-winning Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate. The following season was the best of his short career, netting 13 goals and assisting another six in 37 games across all competitions. And then it happened for the first time.

On 21 August 2016, Athletic visited Gijón and racial abuse and monkey chants were audible across El Molinón. “I didn’t realise that they were insulting and were disrespecting me,” he said after the game. “It was the referee who talked to me and said: ‘Iñaki, they are insulting you, there are racist insults. I am going to stop the game so that they can address them through the PA system so these incidents will not be repeated throughout the game.’ It shocked me a lot because it was the first time it happened to me.”

The referee, Carlos Clos Gómez, suspended the game for one minute and some days later the Spanish Football Federation’s Competition Committee decided to partially close the section from where racist chants were heard. For yet another time, Iñaki moved on. He wouldn’t let such individuals ruin his dream.

“He is a very open kid, joker and someone who likes to share with people,” noted Athletic’s press officer Nika Cuenca. “He lives in the centre [of Bilbao], at the Plaza Euskadi, and has a normal rhythm. [He is] very disciplined, very aware of what he has done and what he can do.”

Over the next three seasons, Iñaki mustered 33 goals and 20 assists in all competitions. He hasn’t missed a league match since April 2016, breaking the record of the most consecutive LaLiga games disputed by an Athletic player. By last summer, he even turned down Manchester United to sign a nine-year contract extension with Los Leones until June 2028, with a buyout clause set at €135m.

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He was just 18 months old when his mother asked him which team he supported. ‘Athletic,’ he screamed and he begged for a red-and-white shirt. “I am where I want to be,” he told Cadena Ser. “I’ve always said it, this is my house and I want to continue many more years here. Retiring at Athletic is a very real option. I would like to hang up my boots here.”

People in Bilbao love him and the dressing room share the same affection. Muniain has nicknamed him ‘La Pantera’ – The Panther – and Iñaki describes himself as someone who has “Panther skin and lion heart.”

In January 2020, his bravery and determination was challenged again when Espanyol hosted Athletic at the RCDE Stadium. In the 69th minute of the game, he had to make way for Raúl García. Under the new rules, a player has to exit the pitch when being taken off at the nearest touchline. Iñaki walked calmly behind Diego López’s goal and past the Espanyol ultras section.

It was then that he heard monkey chants coming from the stands. Upset, he informed the team’s captain, Muniain, who reported the incident to the referee, José María Sánchez Martínez. Their appeals fell on deaf ears.

Three days later, Athletic travelled to Tenerife for a Copa del Rey match, where Iñaki received a standing ovation from Tenerife fans. “If [racist abuse] happens again, I will have the support of many people,” he told Movistar+. “I know that my teammates would have left the pitch with me. I have discussed it with them, and next time we will leave the field, even if we lose the game. In the 21st century, it is something that shouldn’t be allowed. It does not matter the colour of the skin, the race or the sex.”

In 2019, Iñaki and his family travelled to Kuwait. When they reached the desert, María burst into tears. Memories came flooding back – moments of hardship and sacrifice with the sole intention of giving her family the chance to dream.

Iñaki dreamt big and accomplished his goals. However, he will never forget the past – he is totally aware of football’s impact on society and the messages that a professional player can deliver. After all, it’s not about him; it’s about all those who are fighting on a daily basis to give their children the chance to dream.

“I am who I am and [racism] does not affect me,” he noted in an interview for Antena 3. “However, it’s not right for the people who come from abroad and suffer, trying to find some bread to eat, provide for their children.”

By Panos Kostopoulos @Panos88K

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