Nico Williams gets royal assent after dynamic display shows Spain’s future

Winger took his Italian marker to pieces but has his father’s and older brother’s sacrifices to thank for his progress

Nico Williams fights for the ball with Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Federico Chiesa during the UEFA Euro 2024 Group B football match between Spain and Italy at the Arena AufSchalke. Photograpg: by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

When Nico Williams turns up, everything changes, except him. At the end of Spain’s 1-0 destruction of Italy on Thursday night – and, yes, there is such a thing as a 1-0 destruction – King Felipe VI made his way down to the dressingroom to congratulate them. There was a brief address, something about having to win even if it was with an own goal, and a smattering of polite applause. The king went round the room: handshakes, smiles, the occasional word. “Sixteen?!” he said, standing before Lamine Yamal, putting his head in his hands. The players laughed a little awkwardly, nodded, said thanks.

And then, just as Felipe reached the end of the line, shook David Raya’s hand and started to say he was going now, he was suddenly interrupted by a cheer and applause. A big cheer and proper applause: forget all the formality, this was felt. Behind him, Williams had walked in. Make way for real royalty. Top off, grin on, Spain’s winger and the game’s man of the match bounced in and held out his hand, a high palm this time in place of all that protocol. Which made for a pretty good portrait. Iñaki’s little brother is irresistible, he and Lamine Yamal the revolution.

It had taken 85 seconds for Williams to zoom past Giovanni Di Lorenzo, the fear there from the start for the Italy defender and never relenting, which was explicitly the plan: go, go and go again. “The manager asks me to take people on,” he said, although that on should probably say apart. Clocked at 33.8km/h, he couldn’t be stopped. Asked afterward whether in that moment, that early, he knew the full back was beaten, he laughed. That’s a yes, then. “I felt incredible,” he said. Poor Di Lorenzo, he felt helpless, put through a 78-minute spin cycle, rinsed and repeated.

That first run had produced the first of so many clear chances that should have been so many goals. Another created what was somehow the only goal, scored for Spain by Riccardo Calafiori. Then there was the moment when he came inside and smashed the crossbar, the only opponent that could stop him. It had been, he said, an “incredible” game, his best for the national team, everybody blown away.

Midfielder Nico Williams speaks with Lamine Yamal during the UEFA Euro 2024 Group B football match between Spain and Italy at the Arena AufSchalke. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

It was also a symbol of Spain’s shift, met by an enthusiasm that overflows: young, fresh, exciting, dynamic, different, a twist on tiki-taka led by him and by Lamine Yamal, 21 and 16 respectively and inseparable now. They were, the front page of Marca had insisted on the morning of the game, “two Ferraris to take on Italy” and over on the other wing Federico Dimarco was having almost as bad a time of it as Di Lorenzo. “Luis de la Fuente gives me more freedom to take people on; with Luis Enrique it was more about combinations,” Williams says. “A dribble is like playing back in the park when you’re a kid.”

When Nico was a kid, he would go there with Iñaki. He likes to tell the story of one day there when he was 10 and his older brother 18. That day Nico, warned that it wouldn’t be the same with the big kids, tore them apart too. Now they are team-mates at Athletic Club, winners of the club’s first major trophy in 40 years, a success built on talent and effort, love too. After the Italy game, the first message he listened to was from Iñaki.

This is why the symbolism is deeper than style; in Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal leading Spain there is something more: sons of immigrants, they represent something powerful, a new, shifting generation. Lamine Yamal is the son of a Guinean mother and Moroccan father; Williams’s parents are Ghanaian. Almost 10 per cent of the players at the Euros were born or have heritage outside of the countries they play for. In Spain that is a more recent phenomenon, but it is there, something moving, and its impact could be significant. “Those are players like me and my brother; that shows we are advancing,” Nico Williams has said. “Immigration and integration ... in the end, football is a universal language. My brother opened a path for Africans in Bilbao; he has left a legacy. Now there is a mix of cultures. He made that possible.”

When Maria Arthuer arrived in Spain, she was pregnant with Iñaki. Destiny decided that he would be born in Bilbao; at least that is how he always saw it. Maria and Felix had crossed the Sahara barefooted – Iñaki was a professional in the Athletic first team when he was first told the full story, realising now why his father had difficulty walking, the soles of his feet burnt – climbed the fence into Melilla, Spain’s north African enclave, where they were detained but they did make it to Bilbao.

Iñaki Williams celebrates with Nico Williams after scoring their team's first goal during the LaLiga Santander match between Cadiz CF and Athletic Club. Photograph: Fran Santiago/Getty Images

There, they were helped by a Catholic charity and a priest called Iñaki, whose name they gave to their son. They lived in public housing in Pamplona. Felix went to London to look for work, at one point employed on the turnstiles at Chelsea. For a decade, Iñaki recalled, they barely saw him: he wanted to be a footballer to reunite his family, he said. Eight years Nico’s senior, he was not just a big brother; he was a father.

Experiencing sacrifice and economic difficulties his brother never saw, determined he would make it for all of them, Iñaki was a strict father, the responsibility to guide also guiding him: it is not just that Nico might not have made it without that paternal role, it is that Iñaki might not have done either.

He would get his brother up in the morning, make his breakfast, prepare his clothes and take him to school. In the afternoon, he would be back to pick him up, bringing a sandwich. He would take him to training and to the park. Nico has a tattoo of a lion with its cub; the lion is Iñaki, the cub is him.

At Lezama, Athletic’s training ground, they thought that Nico might be even better than his brother. Eventually, they played together in the first team, where there have been scenes of fun and tenderness, Iñaki continuing to guide. They got their first senior international call-up in the same week, despite the age difference. Both had played for Spain at youth level, but now, while Nico joined Spain, Iñaki played for Ghana. He had played once for Spain in a friendly in 2016 and held on to the hope that they might call again – and over the past two years his level has been better than ever before – but now he accepted Ghana’s advances.

Sergio Rochet tackles Iñaki Williams during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group H match between Ghana and Uruguay at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

Even that can be seen, at least in part, as an act of love, maybe even sacrifice, as the separation of a parent from their child: fly. As part of the process that put Nico on the pitch in Gelsenkirchen. Iñaki had resisted for a long time, fearing that it didn’t feel right to play for Ghana – he’s from Bilbao and proud of it – but a long conversation one night with his 90-year-old grandfather Richard convinced him. “He said that he didn’t have long left to live and has dreamed of his grandson playing for Ghana,” Iñaki recalled. “There was nothing left to think about then.”

Talking about that moment this week with Filippo Ricci from Gazzetta dello Sport, Nico used a striking line: Iñaki, he said, “let me continue with Spain”. Let me. “My grandfather asked one of his grandchildren to wear the Ghana shirt, and my brother told me it was right for it to be him; he let me continue with Spain. My brother felt it had to be him; he said: ‘You play for Spain.’ It was a family decision.”

And so he did. And so on Thursday night, Nico Williams was Nico Williams, just being himself whoever stands before him, doing what he always did. “Pure cinema, star boy,” his brother tweeted. “This win is for him too, for my parents, for the Williamses,” Nico said. – Guardian