BROTHERS Nico and Inaki Williams are playing for different nations at the World Cup – after their parents walked barefoot across the Sahara Desert to safety.
The pair of attackers were both born in northern Spain and developed into exciting, attacking stars.
At club level, they are tearing it up as team-mates for Athletic Bilbao as the Basque side sit fourth in LaLiga ahead of Atletico Madrid in the race to qualify for the Champions League.
However, after representing Spain at youth level, they made their independent decisions regarding senior international football.
Nico, 20, opted for Spain and his sudden breakthrough over the last 12 months saw him earn a call-up for La Roja's World Cup campaign.
But older brother Inaki, 28, decided in July to make himself available for selection by Ghana having made one friendly appearance for Spain in 2016.
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The pair were eligible to play for the West African nation through their parents.
Mother Maria and father Felix fled Ghana while pregnant with Inaki – who was born in June 1994 – as war ripped through the nation.
The couple left home and made a staggering 4,000km journey from Ghana to Melilla, the Spanish enclave in northern Africa on the Mediterranean coast.
Temperatures soared as high as 50C as they made the trip which included large sections walking with no shoes and others in crowded truck trailers.
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Felix even has damaged soles to this day as a result of the treacherous conditions before they were arrested.
Inaki – who played in a record 236 consecutive LaLiga games and almost scored the dramatic equaliser against Portugal – said: "Hearing my parents’ story makes you want to fight even harder to give back everything they sacrificed for us.
"I couldn’t ever repay them – they risked their lives – but the life I try to give them is the one they dreamed of giving us. And, in some way, we can say, ‘We’ve done it.’
“You’d watch the news and see boats arriving from Africa, people climbing the fence [into Melilla] and I realised I didn’t really know how we got to Spain.
"It’s something I always asked but my mum avoided it because I was just a kid.
"And maybe she then thought if she’d told me when I started at Athletic at 18 it would have been a weight on my back.
"I knew my life was different to my friends’ and I could imagine, but when you hear the details …
“Details like: I didn’t know they had crossed the desert by foot.
We always had a bit of a needle in the parks when we were little and I hope we can do it as professionals
"I knew my dad had problems with the soles of his feet but not that it was because he had walked barefoot across the Sahara sand at 40, 50 degrees.
“They did part in a truck, one of those with the open back, 40 people packed in, then walked days."
Inaki added to The Guardian: “People fell, left along the way, people they buried. It’s dangerous: there are thieves waiting, rapes, suffering. Some are tricked into it.
"Traffickers get paid and then halfway say: ‘The journey ends here.’ Chuck you out, leave you with nothing: no water, no food.
"Kids, old people, women. People go not knowing what’s ahead, if they’ll make it.
"My mum said: ‘If I knew, I would have stayed.’
“They reached Melilla, climbed the fence and the civil guard detained them. They didn’t have papers and came as migrants, so you get sent back.
"When they were in jail a lawyer from [the Catholic aid organisation] Caritas who spoke English said, ‘The only thing you can try is tell them you’re from a country at war.’
"They tore up their Ghanaian papers and said they were from Liberia to apply for political asylum. Thanks to him, we arrived in Bilbao.”
That priest who helped the Williamses gain asylum and settle in Bilbao and then Pamplona was called Inaki Mardones – hence the Athletic star's name.
Inaki scored the winning goal in the Spanish Supercopa final against Barcelona in 2021 – then Nico followed suit by scoring the winner in the semi-final this year, prompting mum Maria to celebrate by jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed.
The pair have now played 51 times together for Bilbao – who only allow players born and raised in the Basque region of Spain – and are starting XI regulars now, linking up directly together for two goals.
Both of those came in a 4-0 win over Almeria in September, with Nico assisting Inaki for the opener and then Inaki returning the favour for his brother later on.
Now in Qatar, though, they are on opposite sides – and could face off in the quarter-finals.
And Nico had no doubts they would relish the opportunity.
He told AFP: "Above all I'd like to face Ghana.
"It's that sibling rivalry, we always had a bit of a needle in the parks when we were little, and I hope we can do it as professionals.
"The truth is that we could never have imagined that we would reach this level, two brothers playing for the same club, each one in a national team and at a World Cup.”
"In life, this situation happens rarely, and my family is very happy and proud that we are here.
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"Our parents have given everything for us, my brother and I, suffered a lot for us.
"My brother is protective of me, he wants to help me, and because of that I am the person that I am today."
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