Iñaki Williams “My Goal Is To Be A Legend At Athletic”
Five years ago Iñaki Williams made his first team debut for Athletic. As one of the most prolific young players to come through Lezama in the past decade it was a highly anticipated moment and the forward has gone on to make over 200 appearances for the Lions. In celebration of the anniversary, Williams sat down with Paco Ruiz of DEIA where he reflected on his career, goals, and the importance of family.
“It was a cluster of feelings,” said Williams looking back on his debut. “I was very nervous because I did’t want to disappoint. I had to prove that I could be a professional player. You can’t show everything you have inside during a game, but you can be close so that people say the next day that you deserve another chance.”
After joining Lezama back in 2012 Williams quickly made an impact, though he admitted that it wasn’t easy to leave his family who were still living in Pamplona at the time.
“Everything has happened fast. Since I arrived in Bilbao I have been burning stages, nobody has given me anything. When I left home I knew that it would be difficult to leave my mother and my brother alone in Pamplona. I came here with all the desire to move the family forward, to bring money home and, above all, to be a professional footballer.”
When Williams first arrived he didn’t have the same technical ability as his teammates, but he did have elite speed which made him one of the best players at Lezama.
“When you are at Lezama you are with the best players in the Basque Country and playing with them infects you and makes you better. I didn’t have that technique that the rest of my teammates had when I came. I knew that I was not the best technically, or with my back to goal or with headers, but I tried to exploit my strengths like my speed and I scored many goals.”
Reaching the first team was difficult, but keeping an important role is even more difficult. Along with his success as a player, Williams is also proud to be able to provide for his family.
“I’ve played 219 games with Athletic and I don’t believe it myself. After all that my parents, my brother, and myself have suffered since I was very little…What I wanted was to get my family forward and I have succeeded. My family is settled. We don’t have to look at the money at home, we have a good roof, and there is always food.”
Williams knows where his family came from and sacrifices that were made when he was a child. Today, he tries to instill the same values in his little brother Nico Williams and help him better understand the importance of hard work.
“I am the son of immigrants who came to the Basque Country to seek a better life for their children and for themselves. There are many people like me and I feel like an example to look at. They support me because they know what we have suffered. I tell my brother to try to enjoy it, because nobody gives you anything, and that you have to work because they can take away what you think is yours.”
Some have gone as far to say that Nico Williams can become even better than his older brother. “He has an incredible handling with both feet and I envy him because he is very good technically,” admitted Iñaki. “I try to remind him that he has to work hard because technique isn’t enough. Many who have had great technique never took off.”
Iñaki had to be both a big brother and a father figure for Nico growing up and he hopes that he’s set a good example of the values that he holds so dearly.
“He tries to listen to me, but he’s young. He sees me as a father because ours had to go to work and was not with us as long as he would have liked. I tell him that what I have achieved has been based on work and how our mother has had to strive for us. Sometimes he doesn’t listen to me, but he has to make a mistake to learn.”
While Nico has his older brother to look up to, Iñaki has his mother. No one played as a bigger a role in his life than his mother who has been a constant encouragement and example of sacrifice.
“I listen to my mother, to Felix (Tainta) my representative who have given me a lot, to my friends, to my girlfriend, and to all those people who have always tried to help me. The best advice that has helped me the most in my career is the one of humility. My mother tells me that you can be good or bad, that you can score goals or not, but that when you work you are closer to being a better player. Every day I work is a victory and thanks to that advice I am where I am.”
Having found success as a footballer, Williams knows that his family is no longer in need. However, the experiences he had growing up has helped him continue to live a humble life.
“Not everyone is lucky. My family is not lacking anything and that’s good because we know how much it has cost us. We try not to splurge on nonsense, to value the effort it has cost us. You can be the same person even when you are a millionaire. I don’t forget where I come from. I am what I have always been and will be all my life.”
Williams recently broke Carmelo Cedrún record for the most consecutive games played in La Liga. When asked about the milestone the striker stated that he doesn’t know what the key has been, though he’s been really lucky with injuries over the years.
“I don’t know. I have been very lucky because I haven’t had many injuries and I knock on wood to keep it that way. I have a good genetics and the coaches I’ve had have trusted me even though I haven’t always played well and been successful. Everyone knows that my best quality is speed and since childhood I have been super fast. I try to take advantage of it because it’s where I stand out from the rest, where I feel powerful. I have virtually no rival in a race.”
Though he has become a key player for Athletic in recent years, Williams is confident that he can play at a much higher level and is determined to continue improving.
“My best version is yet to come, the best Iñaki has not arrived. I am a very ambitious person. I’m not satisfied with what I have achieved. People have demanded a lot because they know what I can achieve. I’m aware that I have to improve and when I read the reviews I don’t get frustrated. I don’t make excuses and the criticism doesn’t bother me if it’s constructive.”
The 25-year-old has always preferred playing as a striker, but Athletic have had more success with Williams on the wing. Either way, he just wants to do everything he can to help the team.
“Where I feel most comfortable is as a center forward. Due to the circumstances of the team and the decisions of the coach I have had to play in the right wing. I’m not going to hide that I do it well. My dream since I was a child is to be the Athletic nine, to be the Athletic reference.”
Williams made his debut on 6 December in a loss to Córdoba but would have to wait until February for his first goal. That goal remains the most special one he’s scored in his career.
“Out of the 52 goals that I’ve scored the most special was the first one. I scored it at the Olympic Stadium in Turin against Torino. It was a memorable goal in my first start in a European competition. I scored at a great stadium and where the Athletic fans were sitting.”
Over the summer Williams signed a new nine-year contract and explained that the goal was to guarantee his future at Athletic. Though he has plenty of offers to leave, the forward can’t fathom the idea of playing for any other club.
“I wanted to show my loyalty for the club with my renewal. In football you never know what can happen, but I have always said that I want to end my contract here, that I’m happy in Bilbao where I feel respected and loved. I don’t consider being at any other club than Athletic. I have received calls from major clubs in Europe and I was able to leave if I wanted, but I didn’t even think about it. Having clubs interested in me means that I’m doing some thing well, but leaving doesn’t even enter my thoughts.”
Other Athletic stars have left over the years which has angered fans. Williams admitted that it’s always hard to see a teammate go, but has no intention of doing the same.
“When they took the step to leave, such as Kepa with whom I have a great relationship, I felt sorry because they were very important for the team. Everyone chooses their own path, but those of us here do it to show that we love Athletic and that we want to do something great for Athletic.”
Instead of leaving the club, Williams wants to be like Julen Guerrero and Joseba Etxeberria and eventually retire as an Athletic legend.
“They were world class players. I like being lucky enough to see Chopo (José Ángel Iribar) every day. He’s an institution at the club and I see how people admire him, how they stop him and ask for photos. I would like to be someone like that, someone very important for Athletic. My goal is to be a legend at Athletic like they were.”
When asked about Athletic’s goals for the season, Williams stated that the team should be competing for Europe and that it would be a failure to not do so.
“As the ambitious player that I am, our goal has to be competing for Europe. The club deserves to be in Europe, for fans to travel to support us, because it’s an incredible feeling. Yes it can be a failure if we don’t qualify because we have a strong enough team to be in Europe.”
Much has changed at Athletic over the last year. While the Lions are one of the best teams in La Liga right now, the preseason season was very difficult.
“Last year was the most complicated season that I had to live. Gaizka (Garitano) coming to us phenomenal because he knew how to turn the key when there were many people who thought we were going to be relegated. It was a mixture of satisfaction to get out of the bottom and, on the other hand, it was a blow to have Europe so close and not get it.”
Many fans have criticized Garitano’s tactics as being too defense, but that’s not how the players view it. “Football has changed a lot and few teams practice Tiki-Taka,” Williams explained. “We have to be solid in defense because we have the best pair of center-backs in the league. We have solidarity with the level that are on the field.”
This weekend Athletic will travel to face Real Betis where a win could move the Basques to within a single point of fourth place. “I’ve scored several goals there,” said Williams. “The team is incredible and doing well. We have the confidence to get a good result, although with our feet on the ground because we have also gone five games in a row without winning earlier this season.”
Turning the conversation back to a personal level, Williams was asked if he has ever been subject to racism in football. “Yes, I played in a match against Sporting in Gijón where the referee had to stop the match,” said the Lezama product. “You feel helpless because you don’t understand that in the 21st century people can insult a person because of the color of their skin.”
Because of his own background Williams wants to help others as much as possible. The 25-year-old regularly partners with the Red Cross and is involved with Éxito Escolar.
“I try to support people in need as much as possible and I don’t hesitate to collaborate with the Red Cross and Caritas. I always look for a place to help, as they did with me when I was little. It’s something that makes you see a reality that we do not live, the reality of people who work a minimum of ten hours to bring a minimum salary home.”
This summer San Mamés will host a number of matches for EURO 2020 and Williams hopes that he will be called up for the tournament. “I haven’t been summoned in official game with the Selection. It’s something I dream about. I know it’s complicated but my dream is to be there, to be able to compete against the best. I hope I can make the decision complicated for the manager.”
Having reached his dream of being an Athletic player, the next goal for Williams is winning a title with the club he loves. “My dream is to remove the barge,” he expressed. “Any Athleticzale that you ask will answer the same. When I see the images of the last league championships I get goosebumps. I would give everything I have to live that and, once completed, I could die quietly.”
Once Williams finishes his career he expects to walk away from the game. “After I hang up my boots I don’t think I will stay linked to football,” he admitted. “I don’t believe that I will make a life as a coach or assistant coach. I would like to help people, that’s where I think I could do well.”
The story of Iñaki Williams and his family is truly admirable and a lesson for others about the importance of hard work and perseverance. Today, the 25-year-old is living his boyhood dream and wants nothing more than to achieve great things with the club he loves so dearly. Five years ago Iñaki Williams began his Athletic career but the success would be impossible without the sacrifices and determination all along the way.