Athletic Bilbao forward Iñaki Williams has set the standard for playing time in Spain, having played more consecutive matches than any other player in history. What’s his secret?
When Iñaki Williams scored his first goal for Athletic Bilbao in 2015, he became the first player of African descent to do so, and only the second player from that background to even play for the club.
In modern football, you might wonder why that is. And it’s because of Athletic Bilbao’s Cantera policy.
Literally translated, Cantera means “quarry,” but it’s used in this sense to mean the geographical area that clubs recruit from.
Bilbao is based in the Basque Country. Studies have shown that Basque people have been genetically isolated from other Europeans for thousands of years. And their policy means that only players who fit its criteria for being deemed as Basque can play for them.
“It’s a self-imposed limitation that ultimately gives you much more strength because you know you’re competing from an inferior position against big clubs who can sign players from anywhere but you have a motivational pride that you’ve set yourself because of a tradition, a custom that gives you the strength to keep trying to better yourself as a club.”Copa 90
And Iñaki Williams is a great example of that “motivational pride.”
Last month, he marked six years without missing a single La Liga game for his club. No injuries, no suspensions, and he’s never been dropped from the side.
That’s 224 consecutive matches. The previous record in Spain’s top league was 202.
How did he do it?
Iñaki Williams’s incredible run hasn’t been easy. He’s had to answer the critics who asked how a black footballer could play for Athletic Bilbao given its strict recruitment policy.
“I am black, but I am also Basque. I was born here.”
His arrival, he says, opened minds in Bilbao. His record started after he missed a match through injury on the 17th of April 2016. Since then he hasn’t been injured once. That’s despite being the fastest player in Spain and explosive speed often means torn muscles. Doctors and physios are baffled.
Iñaki Williams says he has good genes from his parents. But he’s also pushed through the pain barrier at times, taking pain-killing injections to get him through.
A change of position on the field has also helped him on his record-breaking run.
“When Valverde called him up, he used him mostly out wide, normally on the right, capitalising on his pace to convert him into an electrifying winger. He became one of La Liga’s most feared attackers, consistently ranking as one of the fastest in the division after clocking speeds of in excess of 35 kilometres per hour…”Squawka Football
But even though Iñaki Williams was happy in his new position, it doesn’t fully explain why he had the tenacity that’s needed to play every single league game for six years.
It’s his background that gives us more of a clue.
His Ghanian parents crossed the Sahara desert barefoot without food or water to reach Melilla, an enclave on the Moroccan-Spanish border. His mother, Maria Williams, climbed the fence to Melilla while she was pregnant with Iñaki. Here he is, talking to the club’s YouTube channel.
“In the end, even if your parents came from abroad, if you were born here and have these beliefs, and they have instilled in you what the Athletic feeling is, I don’t think there should be any problem to be in this great club…”Athletic Club
And now, Iñaki Williams plays alongside his brother Nico – who is eight years younger than him – and has also made the Athletic Bilbao first team.
“I did a lot of positive things at Athletic, and now with the arrival of my brother, even more so. In the end, the fact that two black players, brothers, are sharing a team and a dressing room in a great club like Athletic, fulfilling our dreams, makes you realise that the 21st century is becoming more modern.”Athletic Club
It seems like Iñaki Williams feels the privilege of being allowed to play in a club that is uniquely exclusive but you can’t say he hasn’t earned it.
Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford and mixed by Imy Harper.