Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sid Lowe

Iñaki Williams’ 251-game run is over. But some things stay the same

Iago Aspas celebrates after scoring Celta’s winner against Athletic.
Iago Aspas celebrates after scoring Celta’s winner against Athletic. Photograph: Octávio Passos/Getty Images

Weird things happened this weekend, circle closed at the Bernabéu with a 0-0 draw that wasn’t just better than it sounds, but better than almost anything all season. Xavi Hernández, the Barcelona coach who declared “our history says you have to win and play well; a 1-0 in the 90th minute is no use”, went to Girona and oversaw a third 1-0 victory in a row, completing a run from pre-history to go five points clear and become winter champions. Real Madrid, who turned the plan upside down by playing well and not winning, didn’t score for the first time in 30 games. And Real Valladolid did score, six matches and nine hours later and in the 90th minute, a Canadian flying to the rescue.

Cyle Larin’s coach had welcomed him four days earlier by admitting “we need your help” and he was just 14 minutes into his Valladolid career when he took off to volley a brilliant winner against Valencia. Cádiz, whose top scorer had two, the entire squad on eight, beat Mallorca 2-0, climbed out the relegation zone and then slipped in again, up five places and down four in a day. Sevilla striker Youssef En Nesyri, who hadn’t scored in 15 league games, scored twice in 15 minutes, the opener a leap so prodigious he could have cracked his head on the moon. And Saúl Ñíguez finished the way Atlético’s forwards don’t for his first in two years.

But if all that was a little unusual, this was unthinkable. On Sunday evening, Iñaki Williams did not play for Athletic Bilbao. That’s: Iñaki Williams. And: Did. Not. Play. Instead, the footballer who had been on the pitch for every single league game in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 sat at Balaidos and watched his teammates lose 1-0 to Celta de Vigo. It was the first time they had played without him since Málaga in April 2016, back when Corona was a beer, Trump hadn’t made America great again, and Britain was in Europe; when Real Madrid had only 10 European Cups and Málaga could just about aspire to play in one.

He was 21, a kid. Now his baby brother is in the team. All that time: no temptation to leave, no injury, no illness, not one silly red, no suspension, no rest, no rotation, no manager leaving him out. No holding back either, no self-preservation: this guy was officially faster than anyone else, ask any five-year-old. Ernesto Valverde was there at the start and, having gone away, won the league twice and come back again, there at the end. Between Valverde’s two spells, there was Kuko Ziganda, Eduardo Berizzo, Gaizka Garitano and Marcelino Garcia Toral. They were different but they all agreed on one thing: Iñaki played.

And so he played every game for 251 games. Without stopping.

Until now. The son of Ghanaians who crossed the Sahara barefoot when his mother was pregnant, born in Bilbao (destiny, he calls it), named after the priest who looked after his family, called Kweku at home and in the national team he finally joined, granting his grandfather a final wish, raised in Pamplona, a father for his brother, keeping both on the right path, Iñaki is a Basque who only wanted to play for Athletic. There is a photo you will have seen now: a tiny boy in a sparse flat and a red and white shirt. Wearing it once would have been something; scorer of the goal that gave Athletic their second trophy in 37 years, he has worn it every week for almost seven years.

Iñaki Williams helped Athletic Bilbao into a Copa del Rey semi-final on Thursday but was missing on Sunday.
Iñaki Williams helped Athletic Bilbao into a Copa del Rey semi-final on Thursday but was missing on Sunday. Photograph: Ivan Terron/REX/Shutterstock

That takes something special. Luck, sure. Genetics, too, and that’s what he tends to talk of. But something deeper. Seven years speaks of generosity, of dedication, discipline. Imagine playing that long and never calling the referee anything rude, for a start; getting to the end of every season with four yellows or fewer. Imagine running that fast and those muscle fibres never fraying. “He has extraordinary human qualities, an attitude towards his profession that makes him the perfect role model,” Marcelino says. This is a record that has never been matched in Spain, and surely never will again. His total is almost double the next man in Athletic’s history, 49 higher than the second in La Liga, Real Sociedad’s Juan Antonio Larrañaga. He stopped eight games short of the all-time record for an outfield player, set by Heinz Simmit in the 1970s.

It came out the blue. Sure, they said he was struggling but, well, it’s Williams. He plays. He had travelled too, only to be left out at the last minute. There was even a fan waiting for him there, a small boy handing over an Iñaki model he had made. It was hard not to hear the squad, to see the team picture and not feel sad. To see him in the stands and not sense your heart sink a bit. To wonder if they couldn’t have just stuck him on for a couple of minutes. This was the most normal thing of all – footballer has strain, sits out, comes back next week, no big deal – but it no longer felt like that. “It had to happen some time,” Valverde said, and of course it did, but some part of you wondered if maybe it never would, if he really was indestructible, not entirely human.

But he has a human hamstring and, having helped take Athletic into the semi-final of the Copa del Rey on Thursday night, it was strained, overworked. “Let’s hope it’s not much; it’s just discomfort. I wasn’t going to force him, there’s no sense risking it,” Valverde said. “It started with me as coach and it ends now, but it was necessary. It’s the end of a cycle.”

Williams had not missed a match since 2016.
Williams had not missed a match since 2016. Photograph: Álvaro Barrientos/AP

The day the cycle began against Atlético Madrid, Fernando Torres scored the only goal. That season, Atlético’s star signing was Jackson Martínez, “synonymous with goals” it says here in the guide book, but he had already gone, not too pleased to be packed off to China. Barcelona’s was Arda Turan, he of the absurdly apt name, complaining how hard work was at Atlético and hoping not to move quite as much in Catalonia. There was a kid at Castilla called Martin Ødegaard and Juan Carlos Valeron was playing in Las Palmas. That’s how long ago it was since Williams last missed a match.

Deportivo were first division and had bought Lucas Pérez after a year on loan: he may be there now too but has been away and back again, twice, via five clubs, and Depor have not just left primera but segunda too. Betis had signed a guy called Joaquín, although at 34 there were doubts about how long he could last, which turned out to be almost as much of a laugh as he is. And Iago Aspas had gone to Celta, where he is their everything now. Those seven years in which Williams didn’t miss a single match were sufficient for Aspas, the youth-teamer who should never have left home but realised what it all meant because he had, to become the greatest ever Celta player, Spain’s best striker.

Williams saw that up close: this was Aspas’s ninth goal against Athletic. On Sunday evening, though, he could only sit in the stand as Aspas scored his 193rd for Celta, holding off Dani Vivian and guiding past Unai Simón with 20 minutes to go. It was the only goal, Athletic falling to a third consecutive defeat, and it had to be him. After all, as the Celta captain put it afterwards: “I would like Messi or Cristiano to come but they’re not going to.”

“Always Aspas to the rescue,” ran the headline in AS, the captain one constant without Williams. “Coaches change, sporting directors change, squads change but nothing changes really. The plan is still the same it was 10 years ago: Iago Aspas Juncal. The miracles from the man from Moaña are countless, there’s no end to his box of magic tricks. Whatever the situation, wherever he is, Aspas always appears to save his team’s life.”

What’s concerning is that he keeps having to. “I said at the start of the season that we were a bit short and so it is. If no one comes, those of us here are going to have to squeeze one bollock next to the other,” Aspas said afterwards, making a little more sense in Spanish than in English. “The reality is what it is: we’re close to the drop.” On a weird weekend marked by the one man who’s never missing, Cádiz’s win over Mallorca and Sevilla’s victory over Elche on Saturday, crisis eased, had seen Celta start the day in the bottom three, and that had been made worse by Larin’s goal four hours earlier and 436km east. Aspas’s strike pulled them back to safety, coach Carlos Carvalhal insisting: “La Liga is much harder than the Premier League.”

Almería 3-1 Espanyol, Cádiz 2-0 Mallorca, Girona 0-1 Barcelona, Sevilla 3-0 Elche, Getafe 0-1 Real Betis, Real Valladolid 1-0 Valencia, Osasuna 0-1 Atlético Madrid, Celta Vigo 1-0 Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid 0-0 Real Sociedad. Monday: Villarreal v Rayo Vallecano

There was relief in Vigo and in Valladolid too, the place going bonkers when their team finally and deservedly broke through, Darwin Machis’s wonderful last-minute cross reaching the debutant, leg outstretched to score a sensational winner, the pile-on so frantic, so wild, that Gonzalo Plata karate kicked teammate Óscar Plano in the face. Coach Pacheta headed down the touchline to join them and soon put a bit of perspective on everything. They had kept on playing, their way, and after five consecutive defeats and no goals scored, his team had done it at last. “Whenever it rains, it clears up again,” he said. Tomorrow is always another day, a chance to start again. One down, 250 to go.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 18 31 47
2 Real Madrid 18 22 42
3 Real Sociedad 19 10 39
4 Atletico Madrid 19 12 34
5 Villarreal 18 8 31
6 Real Betis 18 6 31
7 Osasuna 19 0 28
8 Athletic Bilbao 19 5 26
9 Rayo Vallecano 18 2 26
10 Mallorca 19 -3 25
11 Almeria 19 -6 22
12 Girona 19 -3 21
13 Sevilla 19 -5 21
14 Valencia 18 4 20
15 Espanyol 19 -6 20
16 Celta Vigo 19 -11 20
17 Valladolid 19 -14 20
18 Cadiz 19 -15 19
19 Getafe 19 -10 17
20 Elche 19 -27 6
Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.