BEST BET: GHANA THE PERFECT FIT FOR INAKI WILLIAMS

Youthful forward Inaki Williams finds himself with a wonderful
problem, a peculiar one not many footballers would ever have yet one which
also requires that he resolves it in the best possible way.

Born of mixed African parentage in Spain, Williams — a good product
of the great Liberian civil war if there ever was one (his folks
supposedly met at a refugee camp set up for fleeing Liberians in
Ghana) — is eligible to play for as many as three countries, with all
having expressed interest in charming him, especially based on the
evidence of the past year when the lad’s had his breakthrough. He’s
proven a rare specimen in that period, with fans of Athletic Bilbao
still rubbing their eyes at the sight of a dark-skinned footballer
starring for their club — Williams is only the second of his kind at San
Mames — and getting used to the concept. Eleven goals already this
season — the pick of which was an absolute worldy that helped sink
Espanyol in November 2015 — and some impressive accompanying play
have seen Williams pique the interest of some of Europe’s biggest
clubs, notably Premier League giants Arsenal, Manchester City and
Liverpool. Any suitors would have to wait a little longer, however, as
Bilbao have just secured their prized asset with a fresh, improved
contract which invokes a staggering release clause of €50m.

As indicated at the outset, though, it isn’t just clubs that covet
Williams’ finely blossoming talent; all three nations he’s eligible to
play for do as well, and Williams couldn’t be too careful in deciding
with whom to realize his international ambitions. Which, among the
trio, offers the brightest prospects for a young man with the world
seemingly at his feet, then?

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First, consider Liberia, where Williams’ mother, Maria, comes from.
The tiny West African land, not by any means one of the Dark
Continent’s strongest forces in football, has the distinguished honour
of producing Africa’s only winner of the Ballon d’Or and the Fifa
World Player of the Year prizes (back in 1995/96 when those two awards
were still independent of each other), George Weah. Unarguably,
though, Liberia reaped far more from Weah than his country ever did
for him. At some point, he practically run the Lone Stars, from
financial matters down onto the pitch, but received very little in
return, as the team just didn’t have enough in it to dine at
football’s high table. And while Williams, should he oblige to play
for Liberia, wouldn’t be required to be involved in the team’s affairs
as intensely as Weah was, he’d still need to rely heavily on a
brilliant club career to carve a niche for himself. Really, where’s
the fun?

Then, of course, there is Spain, Williams’ place of birth and the only
nation he’s ever truly known.

“My parents came here over two decades ago and I can identify with the
stories because they did so much for me,” he told Thinking Football
around this time last year. “I was born here, I’ve been here for 20
years and although you never forget your roots, I feel Basque.”

And if he feels Basque (his first name, ‘Inaki’, is a reflection of
the region’s mark on him, if nothing at all), he naturally feels
Spanish as well. If remarks by Spain national team boss Vicente del
Bosque earlier this week is anything to go by, the feeling is already
growing mutual.

“There’s also Inaki Williams at Athletic, who we consider more of a
striker than a wing player,” revealed del Bosque in an interview with
Goal.com on what options he has in mind in the goalscoring department
heading into Euro 2016 in the summer, acknowledging that “[Williams]
has great speed and is playing with the Spain under-21s.”

It’s a comment that Williams would certainly deem flattering, coming
from a man who’s won all there is in football, and it’s very unlikely
that, should that maiden La Roja call-up come, the player would turn
it down. But perhaps, for his own good, he should. The current Spain
set-up, overflowing with a ridiculously rich bundle of talent, is the
kind that could swallow a footballer like Williams who, though
doubtlessly gifted, is still some distance from hitting the heights
and could easily get lost in it all. It’s what happened to the likes
of David Odonkor, George Boateng, Freddy Adu and, to an extent, Mario
Balotelli — in a sport where nothing is ever quite guaranteed, the
caps might dry up fast due to a loss of fitness/form or the sheer
magnitude of competition. With the world’s best national teams seeking
to include only top-performing stars in their ranks, those factors are
never helpful. Even if the player remains fairly regularly called up,
he — like Ghanaian-born Germany veteran Gerald Asamoah — may only be
assigned the role of a bit-part man, celebrating triumphs he
contributed precious little to. It’s a risk Williams could take, yes,
but with the possibility of either ending up as just another
underwhelming Adu or, at the more rewarding extreme, an
uber-successful Marcel Desailly.

There exists a safer bet for the youngster, though, and that lies with
his dad’s homeland — Ghana. The Black Stars seem just the right
balance between modest Liberia and intimidating Spain, a good fit for
Williams. Expectations, though very high in a country so obsessed with
the beautiful game, are  enough not to suffocate Williams, nor too low
to depress him. Williams’ versatility — he can play anywhere upfront,
on both wings and at the tip of attack — would make him a fine asset
in a setting where offensive players receive far more adulation than
all else. With Ghana’s most prominent striker Asamoah Gyan soon to
exit the stage, Williams does stand a good chance of jumping right in
front of the queue of candidates auditioning to take up the Shanghai
SIPG man’s role. Should he avoid the negative attitude that’s blighted
the experiences of some of his fellow half-Ghanaians who opted to
represent the Stars and keep his head screwed on tight, there’s no
reason why Williams shouldn’t succeed flying the red, gold, green and
black.

For so many reasons, welcoming the Ghana Football Association’s
advances wouldn’t be the dumbest thing to do. It could well be his
best shot at having a solid international future.

 

By: Sammie Frimpong

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