Athletic Club’s Williams brothers hoping to make Copa del Rey history

“It’s incredible.” Iñaki Williams is telling ESPN what it’s like playing football with his brother. And not just playing football; playing and starring together for Athletic Club, one of LaLiga’s biggest, most historic teams.

Athletic are having their best season in years. Coached by former Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde, they’re two points off LaLiga’s top four, fighting to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in a decade. They’ve also reached the Copa del Rey final, where they’ll face Real Mallorca in Seville on Saturday.

Athletic Club vs. Mallorca (Copa Del Rey final, stream LIVE on ESPN+)

Flying up the wings are the Williams brothers, Iñaki, 29, and Nico, 21, two of Athletic’s most exciting, influential players. Iñaki has nine goals and three assists in LaLiga this season. Nico has three goals and eight assists.

One game captured their importance: Athletic’s 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid in their Copa del Rey semifinal second leg on Feb. 29. Iñaki scored the first goal, taking Nico’s cross, before Nico scored the second from Iñaki’s cutback. “You raise your head, look over to the other side of the pitch and know that you’re passing to your brother,” Iñaki says, smiling. “You’re celebrating goals with your brother. It’s like when we were younger, playing in the park. And now our dream is coming true, together.”

ESPN spoke to Iñaki Williams, as well as to coaches who’ve worked with both brothers on their way to the top, ahead of Saturday’s Copa del Rey final, which is perhaps the biggest game of their careers to date.

Two brothers performing at such a high level is a rarity. The most famous examples — Bobby and Jack Charlton, Michael and Brian Laudrup, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Gary and Phil Neville, Kolo and Yaya Touré — are remembered because they’re such outliers. When it comes to the Williams brothers, the sense of something special about them is heightened by the way they play.

“They’re so electric, so dynamic,” Cuco Ziganda — an Athletic legend as a player who spent six years coaching at the academy before managing the first team in 2017-18 — tells ESPN. “They have so much speed and class. Being so important in that semifinal … In such an artificial world, it gets your attention.”

Watch Athletic, and you can’t miss Iñaki’s explosive pace. He’s the third-fastest player in LaLiga this season, timed running at 35.4 kilometers per hour (22 mph). Listen to him off the pitch and he’s a charismatic leader and antiracism advocate. Nico is a gifted dribbler, more naturally talented, and at 21, still developing. Both are success stories for Athletic’s “unique in the world” ethos — to quote the club’s motto — with its philosophy of signing only players born or raised in the Basque Country, a region that crosses the border between Spain and France, home to around 3 million people.

The Williams’ origin story in Bilbao is well known, but it doesn’t make the details any less shocking. The brothers’ parents emigrated from Ghana, crossing the Sahara Desert to reach the city of Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco.

“[My parents] never wanted to tell me. They didn’t want me to know,” Iñaki told TV show “Salvados” in 2021. “When I turned 18, they sat me down and told me they crossed the desert. They were tricked [by human smugglers]. They thought it would be like a 15-minute bus ride. They didn’t know what they’d have to experience, leaving people behind, burying people along the way.

“My mother was pregnant with me when they arrived … They jumped the [border] fence [in Melilla]. My parents still have scars on their legs. There are burns on the soles of my father’s feet. They suffered a lot.”

Iñaki was born in Bilbao but played his first football a hundred miles away after the family moved to Pamplona.

“I knew about Iñaki before he came to Athletic,” Joseba Nuñez, a longtime academy coach at Athletic and now sporting director at Barakaldo, tells ESPN. “I was managing the Basque Country under-18s team and he played for [neighboring region] Navarra. He would have been 17. He was a centre-forward, very quick. He was the one who stood out in that team. And the next year, Athletic signed him.”

“His development came a bit late,” Ziganda says. “Not physically, because he was so quick, but technically, tactically, his reading of the game … His steps were slow but firm. And he always progressed. The first time I saw him play for [reserve team] Bilbao Athletic, you saw that he wasn’t just quick … You realized this kid had something. He had things he needed to polish, of course, but he had something.”

Iñaki made his first-team debut for Athletic in December 2014. He hasn’t always been outstanding since — in 10 seasons he has reached double figures for league goals only twice, with a career-best 13 in 2018-19 — but with Athletic’s forward options limited by their transfer policy, his contributions have been consistently valuable.

“When he was younger, [Iñaki] relied on being so fast,” Nuñez says. “That speed was enough for him to stand out and score goals. But when he got to the elite, he had to improve in a lot of ways. And he’s still improving. He finishes better in front of goal. He’s good at finding space. He’s learning to play with his back to goal. He’s an all-round player, who has good numbers in terms of goals and assists, and he’s a hard worker.”

He has been helped by a seemingly remarkable resistance to injury. Iñaki holds the record for participating in the most consecutive LaLiga matches, 251, between April 2016 and January 2023. That’s almost seven years without missing a single league game.

Iñaki had to work hard to maximize his talent, with the added pressure of providing for his family. Nico, eight years younger, was a different case.

“Nico isn’t like Iñaki,” Ziganda says. “He arrived at Lezama much earlier, as a kid. And he always, always stood out. Technically he’s very good. He’s always been comfortable on the ball. He’s not all about physique, like Iñaki was. Iñaki had a lot of hunger. But Nico didn’t. Nico has been lucky to have Iñaki. Perhaps he didn’t have to go through as much.”

Nico broke through early, becoming a first-team regular in 2022-23, and was called up by Spain in September 2022. “I’ve watched [Nico] a lot. My son was a year younger than him, and they trained together,” Nuñez says. “From when he was little, he was impossible to stop in one-on-ones. His dribbling is spectacular.

“I coached Nico at Juvenil level [under-19s], and he had a great season, but he had to improve his decision-making. Now he has everything. He can take people on, he can shoot from outside the box, his crossing is good. If you get tight, he’ll beat you. If you stand off, he’ll shoot, or put in a dangerous cross. He’s a player who’s difficult to stop.”

Athletic are among the giants of Spanish football. One of three clubs — with Barcelona and Real Madrid — to have never been relegated from the First Division, they have won eight league titles and 23 Copas del Rey. But the last of those major trophies came in 1984, when Basque teams dominated LaLiga. Since then, Athletic have played six Copa del Rey finals and lost them all. Five of those losses came in the past 15 years — four of them to Barcelona — and Athletic’s only piece of silverware in the past 40 years was a Spanish Supercopa, won in 2021.

On Saturday, that could change. Athletic are favorites to lift the cup against Mallorca. There are 25 points separating the two teams in LaLiga, with Athletic chasing European football and Mallorca battling relegation. Built on a solid foundation — only Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals this season, and no team recovers the ball more often — Athletic have some serious talent in attack, where the Williams brothers are joined by playmaker Oihan Sancet and forward Gorka Guruzeta.

Only Barca’s Robert Lewandowski and Madrid’s Rodrygo have taken more shots in LaLiga this season than Iñaki’s 71. No player has more attempts on target (35), and only three players — Girona winger Sávio, Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo — have taken on a defender more often than Nico. After six seasons in which Athletic have finished 16th, 8th, 11th, 10th, 8th and 8th again in LaLiga, this campaign promises much more.

“Obviously I’m enjoying my football,” Iñaki tells ESPN. “I turn 30 this year. They say that’s your best age to enjoy football. Physically I feel good, I’m understanding the play well. Ernesto [Valverde] gives the players confidence and gets the best out of all of us. It’s a special moment at Athletic.”

A positional switch, with Iñaki moving from centre-forward to the right wing, with Nico on the left and Guruzeta — who has 13 league goals — through the middle, has helped.

“Guru moves well,” Iñaki says. “He creates space for Nico and I. Guru has that tendency to drop deep and create uncertainty among defenders, and that’s where the brothers, with the speed we have, can take advantage. A lot of the goals we’ve scored come from that. Nico and Guru understand each other, with [Nico’s] balls into the near post. We’re making for a very good trio.”

“Iñaki has gone from being a centre-forward to a player who starts on the wing, and ends up inside,” Nuñez says. “He starts on the wing and arrives at the far post, so he’s not as closely marked. He doesn’t have to play with his back to goal, and that’s helped him a lot. He’s shooting with both feet, his finishing has improved. Little by little, he’s becoming a top player.”

“I feel like this is [Iñaki’s] most complete season,” Ziganda says. “You can see he has a level of confidence, of authority. He knows where to be on the pitch. He’s confident in himself and what he’s doing. There’s a consistency we hadn’t seen before.

“I think having Nico nearby has been good for [Iñaki]. Having his brother close to him, playing the part of a role model, showing his brother the way, how to behave, how to be a professional player, what it is to play for Athletic and at San Mames … That beacon that [Iñaki] wants to be for his brother, I think that’s been good for him.”

play

0:21

Nico Williams punctuates Bilbao’s win over Barcelona with nice goal

Nico Williams scores a nice goal as Athletic Bilbao advance to the semifinals of the Copa del Rey.

This season’s Copa del Rey has already provided some memorable moments. Iñaki raced back from the Africa Cup of Nations after Ghana’s elimination — he switched from Spain to represent the Black Stars in 2022 — just in time to play in Athletic’s quarterfinal with Barcelona, scoring in extra time alongside Nico in a dramatic 4-2 win. Then came the semifinal with Atletico, with both brothers scoring again.

“It’s that symbiosis,” Nuñez says. “Nico crosses, Iñaki scores. Iñaki crosses, Nico scores … Two brothers, two players who’ve come through at Athletic, with their story, playing for their club and showing every day that they’re great players. It’s beautiful.”

Even moments that might otherwise prove awkward, like a heated on-field row between the brothers caught on camera after Athletic’s 2-0 win over Alavés on March 16, end up endearing.

“I had the ball on the wing and I decided to shoot,” Nico told radio show “El Larguero.” “[Iñaki] said I should have passed. We were arguing about that. It’s a brother thing, it stays on the pitch. We were arguing for an hour in the dressing room, but later at home we made our peace. It always happens … The worst thing is I’m the youngest and I have to keep quiet!”

“We’ve fought hard to play together,” Iñaki says. “Our parents did a lot for us. And now in a way, we’re trying to pay them back for everything that our parents did for us. It makes me so proud to see [Nico] grow like this, seeing him mature in this way, seeing him enjoy his football, and sharing successes and disappointments together.”

Helping win the Copa del Rey on Saturday, securing Athletic’s first major trophy in four decades, would cement the brothers’ place in the club’s history. Nico missed Athletic’s LaLiga defeat at Real Madrid on Sunday with a muscle strain but is expected to recover in time for the final.

“Our history speaks for itself,” Iñaki says, when asked what lifting the cup would mean. “Athletic have won 23 Copas. It’s 40 years since the last time. A lot of generations [of fans] haven’t been able to experience what it is for Athletic to win the cup.

“We’ve lost a lot of finals. But that’s the great thing about football and Athletic, we’ve always get back up … [Winning it] would mean so much. There’s a lot of expectation. The fans are excited, they want this trophy, and we want it too.”

In Bilbao, a one-club city, Athletic flags have been flying from every building, every window, every balcony, in the weeks leading up to the final.

“I hope [the brothers] don’t feel too much pressure,” Nuñez says. “They’ve had a great season. Finals are decided on small details. But if they win the cup, it would be a tribute not just to [the Williams] but to all the generations that have gone close over the last 40 years.”

It would also be tangible proof that Athletic’s Basque-only recruitment policy can still bear fruit in an era where money talks louder than ever.

“It would be a really important reinforcement for a way of thinking, a way of living,” Ziganda tells ESPN. “Being able to say that we’re capable, with our idea, our history, our way of doing things.

“We can compete, and [winning the Copa] would be a way of showing that. In such a global, competitive world, it would be almost a definitive step in showing that when you do things well, you can achieve almost unimaginable things.”