Fans at every club in every country in the world like nothing more than seeing a local boy progress through their youth ranks and go on to cement themselves in the first team. Home-grown heroes help provide that missing link between your average supporter and the increasingly distant world of rich, modern-day footballers, not to mention they can save the club a small fortune on transfer fees.
However at Athletic Bilbao, producing talented youngsters is less a welcome boost, more a fundamental necessity to the mere survival of the club, certainly on Spanish football’s top stage. The unique and distinctly admirable continuation of their ‘Basques only’ policy has seen them invest heavily in their youth set-up and San Mames continues to be a production line of fine footballers and is the main reason why Athletic have never been relegated from La Liga.
The story behind their latest rising star doesn’t quite come from the usual mold though. With a Ghanaian father, a Liberian mother and a surname that sounds more like it came from Bangor or Bridgend than Bilbao, on the face of it at least, Iñaki Williams is not your typical Athletic Bilbao academy graduate.
He announced his arrival on the senior stage with a goal in the 2-2 draw at Torino in the Europa League earlier this year. In doing so he created a little bit of history by becoming the first black player to ever score for the club. It may seem remarkable that a large 117 year old football club in Western Europe can have possibly waited so long for that to happen but it’s no great surprise given the club’s recruitment policy.
Times are changing though and although Athletic is and perhaps always will be a ‘Basques only’ club, the changing demographics of the Basque Country are changing the very notion of what it means to be Basque. The autonomous region of which Bilbao remains the prinicpal symbol of, both on and off the football pitch, isn’t always the most welcoming to outsiders and doesn’t take naturally to change. However any fears that supporters of Los Leones wouldn’t take to Iñaki Williams have been quickly put to bed.
Williams may have struggled to immediately replicate his fine goalscoring form for Athletic II following his breakthrough into the first team but he made some crucial contributions. The most notable of which was a starring role in the 1-0 win over Real Madrid in March, a sure way to warm yourself to the San Mames faithful.
He scored his first league goal a couple of months later, netting a dramatic 90th minute winner at Elche to complete a fine late Athletic comeback and was also on target in the Copa del Rey final at the Camp Nou.
These days, the repetitive chant of ‘ Iñaki, Iñaki!’, which is incidentally about as Basque a name as you could wish for, is an increasingly audible sound on the terraces of San Mames. His influence on the team is growing and this past week his graduation from promising youngster into high class performer has really stepped up a gear.
A brace away from home against Real Betis set his side on the way to a 3-1 victory last weekend and he scored two more in midweek in the Europa League at home to Partizan Belgrade. Back at San Mames on Sunday he scored a goal that only dreams are made of. Surrounded by two defenders and attempting to latch on to a poor ball forward, he spectacularly flicked the ball over both of them before hitting the sweetest of first-time volleys into the top corner.
His pace and energy is the perfect compliment to 34 year old Aritz Aduriz, who is enjoying another stellar season in front of goal. The pair have helped Athletic to 5 straight wins and this has the potential to be an excellent season for both Williams and the Basque club, who have already won the Spanish Super Cup this term.
The media attention surrounding Iñaki Williams is certainly growing and thankfully is changing in its nature. His initial breakthrough into the first-team earlier this year largely led to plenty of talk about the colour of his skin and less what he could offer as a footballer.
Beyond all elements of race and family history, there really isn’t anything wildly different about the Iñaki Williams story. He was born and raised in Bilbao, with a passion and obvious flare for the game and worked his way up through the Athletic Bilbao youth teams like hundreds have done before him.
You suspect he may have been a little bemused about what all the fuss was about when he scored that goal in Turin. “You hear people say ‘A black player at Atletico Bilbao? We’ve never seen that before.’ I just laugh. My name is Iñaki and I’m from Basque,” Iñaki told Thinking Football at the time.
Right now though, all the talk is about the quality of his goal on Sunday, which within 24 hours has exploded his profile around the world with comparisons between his strike and Neymar’s wonder-goal for Barcelona on the same day doing the rounds on social media. He could even emerge as a surprise contender for Spain’s Euro 2016 squad given their relative struggles in finding a reliable striker and he would certainly add another dimension to their game, or at the very least a lively option from the bench.
Either way, at just 21 years old, the Iñaki Williams story is one that has plenty more chapters left to run and the latest in a long line of Athletic Bilbao academy graduates has the potential to be a bit special.