Ghana newcomer Iñaki Williams eager to make family proud at Africa Cup of Nations

AP , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

Following a World Cup when emotions ran high but the goals failed to flow, Iñaki Williams is eager to lead Ghana deep into the Africa Cup of Nations.

Inaki Williams
File Photo: Spanish-born forward Inaki Williams (R) made his Ghana debut in the second half of a 3-0 loss against Brazil. AFP

 

Williams, the son of Ghanaian parents who migrated to Spain before he was born, declared his sporting allegiance five months before the 2022 World Cup.

The Athletic Bilbao forward was unable to score in three group-phase games as his side failed to advance to the knockout rounds in Qatar, leaving him with a bittersweet experience when his excitement to represent Ghana was not matched by his performances.

Now, Williams is confident he will enjoy more success at Africa's biggest soccer tournament in the Ivory Coast next week.

“I am heading into this tournament with a different outlook,” the 29-year-old Williams told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Williams says he is more prepared and integrated into his new team. Since the World Cup, he has played seven more games for Ghana between qualifiers and friendlies, and he scored his first and only goal to earn a 1-0 win over Madagascar in November in a 2026 World Cup qualifier.

“In Qatar, my teammates barely new me both on and off the field,” he said. “But now they know that I am a hard-working and easy-going teammate and that I am here to help the team. The entire group has welcomed me with open arms.”

Williams' younger brother Nico, who is also a forward with Athletic, played for Spain at the World Cup.

They are both popular in their native Bilbao, where the team has had few Black players because it only fields players from Spain’s northern Basque Country region or adjoining areas.

Both Williams boys where born in the industrial city of Bilbao in the north, where they have played for Athletic since their youth.

Their parents' story is quite different.

They had to walk barefoot through the Sahara Desert during a long and perilous journey seeking a better life in Europe, and the mother was pregnant when the couple were detained while trying to enter Spain.

They eventually received political asylum after taking advice from a charity worker who told them to say they had fled a civil war in Liberia.

Williams played in a friendly for Spain in 2016. But when Ghana was interested in him, he decided to change allegiance, with Spain no longer calling him.

His decision was influenced in part by a conversation with his grandfather, who encouraged him to join the “Black Stars."

“I know what it meant to him for me to play for Ghana,” Williams said about his grandfather, who recently passed away. “I am very excited because I know that he will send down all his strength from heaven.

“I am going to fulfill the dream of many of my family members, who feel very proud of me,” he said about playing at the tournament. “I don’t know what emotions I am going to feel, but I am sure they will be intense.”

Williams admits he was nervous to see how the Ghana fans would receive him, saying he was “a bit scared” after having played for Spain.

“Now they see that I am committed and that I have worked very hard during qualifying, and I feel just like any other member of the team,” Williams said. “Everyone is showing confidence in me and my teammates are helping me a lot."

Ghana starts the tournament against Cape Verde on Sunday. It will also play seven-time winner Egypt and Mozambique in Group B, with the top two teams advancing to the knockout rounds.

Williams said he is confident Ghana has what it takes to reach at least the quarterfinals, though he said Morocco is the tournament favorite after reaching the semifinals at the World Cup.

The game against Egypt on Jan. 18 will pit Ghana's attack against that of Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah.

“(Salah) is one of the best forwards in the world and one of the top stars of the tournament,” Williams said. “I am extremely motivated to play that game. We are a team with lots of talent and young players who are ready to stand out in the world of soccer.”

Williams has been one of the fastest, most consistent and durable players in Spain over nearly a decade. He set a league record with 251 consecutive appearances that ran from April 2016 to Jan. 2023.

He is having a strong season, scoring eight league goals. Williams credits the extra playing time with Ghana during international breaks for his stellar campaign with Athletic, which is fighting for a Europa League berth.

“Playing for the national team has been positive for me in many ways, both on the personal level and for my game. And it is beneficial for my performances with Athletic," he said.

Williams wants the upcoming competition to showcase the entire continent and change the image that many outsiders, including those in Spain, have of Africa.

“Africa is not just poverty, it is a continent with many great things to offer,” he said. “This Cup can help the West see that the Ivory Coast is a great place and that all of Africa continues to grow.”

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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