Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Euro 2024: Spain v Georgia – Nico Williams' remarkable journey to the top –


"Dos Ferraris contra Italia" – "Two Ferraris against Italy"
That was the headline in Marca – Spain's biggest sports newspaper – above a picture of the precocious talents that are Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal before the country's Group B win against the current European champions.
With their shared youth – Williams turns 22 on 12 July this year, Yamal will be 17 a day later, the day before the Euro final – the two wingers represent the brightest of futures for Spain's footballing fortunes.
The duo again impressed as Spain set up a quarter-final against Germany with a 4-1 win against Georgia and are seen as key in taking their country to a potential greatness not seen since they won the Euros in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
Williams scored his first goal of the tournament as Spain came from behind to beat Georgia, a stunning individual effort, while Yamal again shone on the opposite flank.
Williams became the only player on record at the Euros – since 1980 – to score a goal, assist a goal, and complete 100% of his passes in a game he started, while Yamal's six chances created against Georgia was the most by any player under 21 in a Euro knockout game.
They have become great friends, with Williams looking after the teenager – inspired by how his older brother Inaki looked after him in their younger days.
The Williams brothers, now team-mates at Athletic Club, have since become leaders in the fight against discrimination in Spain – where an undercurrent of racism still constantly bubbles insidiously beneath the surface of certain sections of Spanish society.
Just last week, Nico spoke out against a racist social media reaction to Marca's headline, while the Spanish federation also offered instant condemnation in support.
The Williams brothers are aware more than most of the huge platform football offers. They are determined to condemn racism at every opportunity and are very aware of the responsibility their words carry.
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Just how Nico and Inaki came to be born and raised in Spain merits re-telling, as it is a story of human trafficking, hope, emigration and love of strangers.
As a child, Inaki Williams could never understand why Felix, his father, had problems with his feet.
Only when he was 18 and already playing for Athletic Club's first team did his mother Maria tell him how they had been damaged by the burning sands of the Sahara desert as the pregnant Maria and her husband left Ghana in search of a better life.
They ended up walking most of the trip that originally was taking them to the United Kingdom, as they were stranded halfway by the gang that had taken their savings.
They were arrested in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, in the north of Africa, and to help gain political asylum they were advised by a lawyer to say they were from war-torn Liberia rather than Ghana.
He put them in touch with Catholic priest Inaki Mardones. He found them state housing in Bilbao and took them to hospital where Inaki was born and named after the young priest, who also agreed to be Inaki's godfather.
The first gift he gave his godson? His first red and white striped Athletic jersey.
Nico would say later: "Thanks to God we are all here together now, living a really good life. My parents are getting to watch their sons prosper, which is why they came here. Everything we do is for our parents.
"They risked their lives so that we, my brother and I, have a better future. And they achieved that. I will forever appreciate what my father and my mother did for us – they are fighters, they instilled in us respect, hard work, every day, that nobody gifts you anything.
"The truth is I am so proud to be able to have them as parents, and I try to do everything possible so that they feel proud to have me as a son."
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Highlights: Spain 1-0 Italy
Despite their new found security, life was far from easy for the Williams family. They moved 150 kilometres south east to Pamplona.
Nicholas Williams Arthuer was born there on July 12, 2002. However, unable to find enough work to keep his family, Felix moved to London doing whatever he could to send money home.
He cleared tables in a food hall in a Chelsea shopping centre and worked as a security guard, even on the turnstiles at Chelsea FC.
He was away for 10 years – he is back in Bilbao now – during which time Inaki became like a father to Nico, while their mother worked up to three jobs at a time in her efforts to provide for her family.
When they go for lunch at their mum’s, she reminds them to clear the table, wash the dishes, and tells them off if they step out of line. The education from their parents is constant.
Inaki, who decided to play for Ghana as a homage to them, would watch over Nico all the way.
From picking him up from school and giving him a 'bocadillo' (sandwich) when they come out of class, to later instructing him in the behaviour that he needed to follow if he wanted to make it as an elite athlete.
"For me he is a reference, he is everything for me," said Nico. "He has helped my parents and me so that we can eat, so that I could go to class, so that I could get dressed.
"He corrects me, he advises me, he has always done it actually, but we get along very well. He is my brother, but he also acts as a father a little."
On 28 April 2021, the brothers were brought on as second-half substitutes in Athletic's 2-2 draw at home against Real Valladolid to become the first siblings to play for the club together since 1986.
Afterwards, they immediately went to visit their mum, who was unable to watch the match as fans were banned from the stadium because of the Covid pandemic.
Inaki (left) and Nico Williams helped Athletic Bilbao win the Copa del Rey in April
Nico has found a new soulmate in the national side, he has a tight bond with the 16-year-old phenomenon Yamal.
Online images of the pair dancing around, presumably by way of preparing a goal celebration, have gone viral.
There are certainly elements of how Nico used to interact with his older brother.
Following Spain's win against Italy, Nico joked: "I've already told him [Yamal] that he has to learn from 'his father', me!"
Nico also added that he had spoken to him and emphasised the importance of enjoying these extraordinary and upbeat times.
Their friendship goes back to when they met at the Spanish federation in Las Rozas in Madrid in March, before Spain's friendly games against Colombia and Brazil when Nico was asked to keep a watchful eye over the young Yamal.
Although planning a day out in the capital on his day off, he was asked instead to go out with the youngster, who was kicking his heels and wondering what to do with his spare time.
Nico accepted. It was a shrewd move from the federation who fully understood that there could be no better mentor for Yamal than Nico.
"He's a good example to him," says a spokesman for the federation. "Lamine copies everything Nico does.
"Nico gets up, gets ready and goes in search of Lamine. He knocks on the door of the Barca player's room and insists: 'Come on, we don't have to be late.'"
In a European Championship qualifier against Georgia last September, Nico and Yamal were brought on. Spain manager Luis de la Fuente has never looked back.
Lamine Yamal (left) and Nico Williams will hope to play a key part when Spain play Germany in the quarter-finals
Fast, explosive, seemingly inexhaustible, Nico is a right-footed winger who can play on both wings or even start from a more central position.
"It was incredible watching him play," says former Athletic head coach Gaizka Garitano. "He was very fast, incredible speed. Even more skilful than his older brother."
A disappointing display in Spain's Euro 2024 opener against Croatia made Williams fear he would be dropped. It also made him doubly determined to show what he could do against Italy.
"I didn't play with joy," he told the coaching staff. "I'm going to give it my all in the next game.” The De la Fuente staff took note of his hunger.
He has already made 17 appearances for Spain and it seems like a matter of time before the biggest clubs in the world beckon.
In December, Nico signed a contract extension at Athletic Club that could keep him there until 30 June 2027.
It comes with a release clause of around £49m which was enough to deter Chelsea, who have followed him for around for some time, while Barcelona have also had a bid rejected.
The player himself has recently insisted he is "happy at Athletic", while club president Jon Uriarte insisted "we are not worried" despite speculation about his future growing.
For the time being though he still has unfinished business with Spain, the country whose shirt he wears with distinction and pride.
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