Iñaki Williams blazes a trail at Spain’s historic Athletic Club: “I have in my blood what it means to be Basque”

These extensions are astonishing!

Iñaki Williams is now Athletic Club’s star forward, and after signing a nine-year contract extension, he’s set to lead for years to come after snubbing moves to the Premier League.

BILBAO, Spain — Iñaki Williams made history on a night when he wasn’t even expecting to make it on the pitch.

With Athletic Club Bilbao’s main striker and goal scorer, Aritz Aduriz, sidelined by injury, then-manager Ernesto Valverde (now of Barcelona) bypassed proven veteran Kike Sola and tapped Williams, an unrefined, 20-year-old speedster, to make his Europa League debut on a chilly February evening. Maybe a shot of energy was what it would take to give his tired squad a chance in the hostile climes of Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino.

Athletic had just crashed out of the 2015 Champions League, dropping into Europe’s secondary competition as a consolation, and the Torino faithful smelled blood in the water. The Italian squad hadn’t allowed a goal at home in the past eight Europa League games, and if the cacophony raining down on Williams and his Athletic teammates served as any indication, the Toronesi were already celebrating a ninth shutout. But with the haze of pregame pyrotechnics still wafting above the pitch, an Athletic through-ball found Borja Viguera streaking down the left wing. Extending his touch, he avoided a clumsy tackle near the touchline and slid a curling ball across the box.

Despite having five defenders there to handle the cross, Torino’s “iron curtain” parted, and a streaking Williams buried his first touch into the top-right corner.

The ninth-minute strike left the crowd stunned, but few were more surprised than the goal scorer. Running to the corner, he screamed, wide-eyed, “I scored a goal! I scored a goal!”

In theory, a first club goal should carry that type of raw emotion, but Williams knew his strike was more than that. With one sparkling touch, the young forward forever altered the history of his club and started a new kind of story in the process.

The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Williams was born in Bilbao, the largest city in Spain’s Basque Country. That night in Torino, he became the first player of African descent to score a goal representing the rojiblanco, and only the second to play for Athletic’s first team when he made his professional debut in 2014 adding a new chapter to more than a century of club history. Five years on, he hasn’t stopped, emerging as the club’s top scorer and one of the fastest attacking threats in La Liga. He was linked to Manchester United in the 2019 summer transfer window and recently signed a nine-year contract extension with Athletic that sets his release clause for potential suitors up to 120 million.

Perhaps more importantly, he has challenged what it means to be Basque, a cultural identity once associated solely with being white, and fought to become the leader of Spain’s most insular club entering a new era.

“It gives me pride to be a part of this club. I think it opens a lot of minds,” Williams said from Athletic’s training ground in Lezama. “It gives me an immense pride to say that I am one of the first blacks to be a part of Athletic, score goals for the club and leave a legacy here.”

The Iñaki Williams fan club, based in a blue-collar part of Bilbao, has a shrine devoted to the team’s new star.

AMID THE LUSH GREEN HILLS of Basque Country, Athletic Bilbao has been carving its unique legacy for more than 120 years. Football came to Basque Country in the late 1800s via English dockworkers chasing steel fortunes in newly industrialized Bilbao, and the city’s signature club produced some of the most prolific Spanish goal scorers of the early 20th century.

While professional clubs have come to rely on imported talent from around the world, Athletic has fielded only players brought up through the region’s academy system or born in Basque Country’s seven provinces (four in modern-day Spain and three in France) since its earliest years as a club. It’s an antiquated tradition in today’s globalized, inclusive sports world but one that has endured Civil War, cultural purge and decades of violence and unrest at home.

Even when the region suffered heavy losses in the Spanish Civil War and the team was forced to change its name to the more Spanish “Atlético Bilbao” for three decades under the Franco dictatorship, the club remained a rallying point for Basquelan

These components are quite adorable!

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