- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

BILBAO, Spain (AP) - Inaki Williams is not the type of soccer player you would expect to see at Athletic Bilbao, the traditional Spanish club which only fields players from Bilbao and its neighboring Basque regions.

Williams, a talented 21-year-old striker who has been thriving in his second season with the senior team, is the son of Liberian parents who fled war in Africa in the 1990s. He was born in Bilbao, like many other players in the team, but doesn’t carry the local family history and tradition that nearly all of his teammates have.

Williams looks like an outsider in a lineup filled with traditional Basque surnames such as Etxeita, Aduriz, Eraso and Iturraspe. The speedy forward earlier this year became the first black player to score for Bilbao in its 117-year history.

“I was born here, but my origins and roots are not forgotten,” Williams says. “I feel like I’m Basque, but I know that there is part of me that is also African.”

His parents reached a refugee camp in Ghana after fleeing civil war in Liberia, then moved to Spain and settled in the Basque region. He made it to Bilbao’s famed soccer academy in 2012, and after scoring 31 goals in 31 games in a season quickly attracted the attention of those in charge of the main squad.

He joined the senior team last year and continued to excel in La Liga, earning comparisons to a young Mario Balotelli, the Italian striker. Williams is already a member of Spain’s under-21 national team, with speculation Real Madrid is looking to sign him.

Soccer was all he had as his parents struggled financially after arriving in Spain. His father had to get a job in London and spent eight years away from home.

“He has seen a lot of people around him suffer and, although that’s not good, in the long term it helped him mature,” said William’s agent, Felix Tainta.

Williams might not have been in the position he is today if his parents hadn’t made it from Africa to Bilbao.

The club has an internal “code” that says it can only sign local-born players, or those who have come through the soccer academies of teams in the Basque region. Bilbao takes pride in this policy of investing in “homegrown talents,” which it calls a “defining characteristic” of the organization.

“Athletic Club as an institution, along with its supporters, are characterized by their desire to defend values which are becoming increasingly uncommon in football and in sports overall in the 21st Century,” the club says boldly on its website, with Williams’ photo featured in the background. “(It has) become a uniting force which outweighs the discrepancies to be found in our daily lives, making our philosophy different to any other and different to the way football is understood throughout the world.”

Williams is not the first player of African descent to make it at Bilbao. Jonas Ramalho, son of an Angolan father, played for the main team in 2011.

“Bilbao has become a multicultural city. It’s normal to see players from different origins,” said Javier Gomez, a 37-year-old Bilbao fan. “If they are formed here, I don’t see a problem, it’s within our philosophy.”

Williams was part of the squad that stunned Barcelona to win the Spanish Super Cup title in August, Bilbao’s first major title in 31 years. Williams had scored the team’s lone goal when it lost the Copa del Rey final 3-1 to Barcelona just a few weeks earlier.

Bilbao also lost Copa finals to Barcelona in 2009 and 2012. It was runner-up to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League in 2012.

Bilbao is an eight-time Spanish league champion, with its last triumph in the 1983-84 season. It finished seventh last season and fourth the previous year.

“Athletic’s identity and stability has allowed the club to stay on the right track in a football world in which it is very difficult to survive,” said Jose Maria Amorrortu, Bilbao’s sports director. “To win a title against Barcelona, it shows that it is possible if you believe that it may be possible.”

Bilbao does not try to recruit youngsters from abroad to its academy. Amorrortu calls the club “a family” with proud traditions and dismisses critics who say its player policy is discriminatory.

“Not the entire world understands what Athletic is all about,” said Inma Carbajo, a 39-year-old supporter in Bilbao. “It’s this philosophy that makes the club great. We would rather be relegated to the second division than change this philosophy.”


AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Madrid contributed to this report.

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