Some stories are so elaborate you simply assume they can’t be true. The Melilla border fence forms part of the Spanish border with Morocco. Melilla is one of two Spanish cities that are the only 2 official parts of Europe located in Africa. Constructed by Spain, its stated purpose is to stop illegal immigration and smuggling. Almost 7 miles long, standing 10 feet tall, this imposing structure is finished off with numerous watch towers adjoined by barbed wire across the summit of each segment of wall.
It would be a fair assessment to say that most people wouldn’t attempt to climb this fence, but for Maria Arthuer and Felix Williams this was not the case. Having just crossed endless miles of scorched Saharan desert with bare feet, the couple had long since decided the risks in their respective home countries of Liberia and Ghana posed a far greater threat than the wall they would now scale.
On arrival in Spain the pair were soon arrested and put into a detention center. Whilst incarcerated they were visited by a lawyer working on behalf of Caritas. He told them to tear up their paperwork and explain to the authorities they had fled from their countries due to war. The lawyer then helped them get to Bilbao in the Basque Country of Northern Spain and eventually they gained citizenship. Here, they met a man who took them into his home. His name was Inaki. 25 years later Maria and Felix’s first son, named Inaki, is now Football Club Athletic Bilbao’s iconic forward and favourite son.
Athletic Bilbao have a very proud history. They have won La Liga on eight occasions and they sit 2nd in the table of Copa del Rey titles, having won the cup 23 times. The club is one of three founding members of the Primera Division that have never been relegated from the top division since its inception in 1929, the others being Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Inaki Williams is the first black player to play for Athletic. Having been spotted playing for local side CD Pamplona, he was signed up to the famous Lezame youth setup. He made his first team debut in 2014 and has since gone on to flourish, scoring 40 goals in 190 appearances, often as a wide forward. His main strengths are his explosive pace, flamboyant trickery and composed finishing when in front of goal. His key attributes summed up perfectly by his spectacular goal of the season versus Espanyol in 2015.
In August 2019 Williams signed a 9-year contract with the club that included a €135 million release clause. Yes, that’s right. 9 years. The club’s hierarchy realising that they must hold on to the prize asset for as long as possible with a host of Europe’s heavyweights monitoring his progress. However, the reason for the 9-year deal relates to the fact that Athletics football philosophy is unlike any other club in European football.
Athletics official club policy is signing professional players native to or trained at youth level in the Basque Country. Since 1912, Athletic has played exclusively with players meeting its own criteria to be deemed as Basque. The club is known for its cantera policy (literal meaning quarry) of bringing ‘Basque only’ players through the youth ranks, as well as recruiting players from other Basque clubs. This is a unique case and has gained Athletic both admirers and critics. The club has been praised by some for promoting home grown players and for its fierce club loyalty but in an ever increasingly globalised world has been considered by others to be too insular and polarising.
The Basque region, much like Cataluña to the east, is rich in culture with its own dialect and customs and continues to struggle to find a balance with the influence of the Spanish national authorities in Madrid. This political unease can be seen as the most likely reason for Athletic’s continued philosophy when striving to establish its own identity.
After such success at a domestic level, the next step for Williams was to prove himself on the international stage. Inaki has so far made 17 appearances, netting 3 times, for the Spanish national team, having decided to represent them ahead of interest from both Ghana and Liberia. An intriguing irony that the country that built such high walls to stop his parents getting in is now embracing this young man’s talents in the senior team. Expect others such as Adama Traore and Ansu Fati to follow this path as Spain slowly starts to become more accepting of a more diverse community.
As Williams stock continues to rise in Bilbao he is my top tip to keep an eye on as a future great In the coming years.