Inaki Williams' Ghana decision sets stage for family's 'divided heart' at World Cup as brother Nico stars for Spain

LORCA, Spain -- Inaki Williams was in the tunnel at the little Francisco Artes Carrasco ground, squashed in among all the supporters and staff under the stands, when he found out what his kid brother had just done.

Meanwhile, 1,051 km (roughly 620 miles) away, on the other side of the Iberian peninsula and across the border in Portugal, Nico had provided the 88th-minute assist that sent Spain into the UEFA Nations League finals. At the exact moment the ball hit the net in Braga, Inaki was getting changed in the Ghana dressing room near Lorca, where he had just been part of the team that defeated Nicaragua by the same 1-0 scoreline.

From in there, among all the socks and bottles strewn across the floor, amid the Ghana flag taped to the whitewashed wall, the noise and the chat, Inaki probably couldn't hear the cheer from the family friends waiting in the passageway for him, but when he came out in his Ghana hoodie and hat, they went straight to him, phone in hand to show him. A big smile crossed his face as he watched back the footage. He shook his head -- "brilliant, brilliant" -- but said he was not surprised.

"Because I know him ... and I am very proud of him."

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That was only Nico's second game for his country; this was only Inaki's second game for his country, too. They are, you will know by now, playing for different countries: Inaki and Nico are brothers whose parents crossed the Sahara desert to get to Spain when Maria was pregnant with Inaki. More than brothers, really. Theirs is an extraordinary story. Inaki was born in Bilbao, not long after they arrived; Nico was born eight years later in Pamplona.

Both ended up playing together for Athletic Club de Bilbao. Their family was poor. Their father Felix was forced to leave looking for work, meaning Inaki would end up effectively serving as Nico's dad. That was not just good for Nico, it was good for Inaki too: the responsibility placed upon him became a big part of what prevented him from taking other paths.

This week, they both made international debuts: Nico for Spain; Inaki for Ghana. If they meet in Qatar, it would be the "hostia," Inaki tells ESPN. The "business," even if their mum, Maria, might have a "divided heart." That looks more likely than ever now after Tuesday night.

That word debut should probably have an asterisk in front of it. Inaki did play once for Spain, back in 2016 under Vicente del Bosque, but that's ancient history. And now it's not coming back -- "It's possible that being here has closed other doors," he admitted on Tuesday night -- but he is not looking back. He is looking forward, just like Nico. Their experiences have always been markedly different and now they are at very different stages of their lives and careers, a fact that helps explain why they are with different teams. Their target, though, is the same.

Nico's assist, provided at the end of his second game as a sub and Spain's last performance before the World Cup squad was announced, led most in Spain to conclude that he will be back. Although he had only just arrived, he hadn't just set up the goal that took Spain to the Nations League final four, but also the goal that should take him to the World Cup. And while Inaki has only just arrived in the Ghana team, he should be going too. Indeed, that is why he arrived; well, one of the reasons why, at least. The call-up came with the World Cup attached.

"I had to make a decision," Inaki tells ESPN. "It was a hard decision to make. I had many, many, many doubts and this might close other doors, but this is football. It's part of life."

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He had previously said that despite his heritage, joining the Ghana national team would feel a little like he was taking someone else's place, someone for whom it would mean everything. More, he admitted, than it might for him. But he is older now, he had come to accept that the opportunity to play for Spain had passed, and the World Cup was coming. This was a chance that might not return. There was something else, too, narrated now under the stand in Lorca.

"I had a talk with my granddad that helped me decide," Inaki says.

Granddad James is 90 years old. This summer, Inaki travelled to Accra and then on to Kumasi, where the family lives. It was the first time he had been to Ghana since he had been in the first team at Athletic. Since he had been a pro, in other words. The last time he had been due to go was, as fate would have it, in the summer of 2016, only that journey got postponed because of his Spain call-up. Six years on, he finally made it, and the journey changed everything.

One night, James took Inaki aside. There was, Inaki says, a look in his granddad's eyes, a kind that overcame all else. They spoke for a long time and James told his grandson that he could die happy if Inaki played for Ghana. How do you say no to that? And so there he was, travelling to Le Havre, France, to play Brazil and then on to the small town in southeastern Spain to face Nicaragua, where he made his first ever start for Ghana, wearing No. 19.

The Francisco Artes Carrasco, a place that has never hosted an international before -- and probably never expected to either -- and is home to third division Lorca, may not be quite how he imagined it, but it's special in its own way and he is the main attraction.

Lorca isn't the most remarkable place, a long way from just about any place. The ground, some five minutes' drive outside town, down a dusty road with not much on it and no sign of a bar, holds 8,120 people in four neat little stands and maybe 4,000 have come for Tuesday's game. Tickets are €10. There are Athletic fans there, in red and white stripes, and Ghana fans of course, in red and green and mostly yellow: they're his fans now, too.

When the Ghana bus -- borrowed from local women's team Alhama CF -- pulls in, they are waiting, drums beating, flags waving and cameras ready. The players get off and don't so much walk in as dance through the gates and all the way to the dressing room, shaking shekeres as they go. "Africa is happiness and we transmit this," Inaki says. He is at the back, following them quietly in, but beaming. Or as quietly as he can with everyone chasing him, wanting a picture, trailing him into toward the tunnel.

On the pitch, it is not the perfect night. There are sparks from Ghana -- Ajax midfielder Mohammed Kudus in particular impresses -- but there is not much of a sense of structure yet, and that naturally includes him. Williams plays 88 minutes. A run in the first half should leave Williams with an open goal, but the ball doesn't come to him, a simple pass not played and he can't believe it. His disbelief lasts a while. Not long afterward, a pull-back from the right doesn't reach anyone. Another one from the left in the second half draws a complaint. A third -- this time given to him rather than given by him -- draws applause. He's getting closer.

The best chance he gets, after about an hour, draws a superb save from the Nicaragua keeper, Douglas Espinoza, but the assistant referee's flag is up anyway. A superb surge and pass -- an assist in waiting -- doesn't quite come off. When an assist does come off, a cleverly lobbed to the far post for what would have been Ghana's second, it is ruled out for offside.

At times, there are visible flashes of frustration. For much of the match, Williams moves fast, but doesn't get seen. He gives and goes, but doesn't get back. Only rarely does the ball come to him. Integration is a process that is, of course, still incomplete. There is a moment at half-time that serves almost as a metaphor: he is heading off the pitch alone as the whistle blows, not noticing that instead of going to the tunnel, his teammates are gathering in a circle in the middle and someone has to call him back.

There is time, but not a lot of it. The World Cup starts in less than 60 days. It's not easy to join a national team from a country you have rarely visited and where you don't speak the language. Williams admits it's hard to join a national team at all: he has played at the same team his whole life, never going outside the Athletic Club context. But the time was right. Time to take that step. He has danced for them, the classic initiation ceremony -- "I made them laugh, which is the point," he says -- and there has been support. The experience has been worthwhile, that's for sure. Something totally different. It has also only just begun. A World Cup is the reward, but it is bigger than that -- deeper, too.

"I've been very comfortable," he says afterwards, standing in the tunnel. "And I'm delighted to be here. There are four teammates [Mohammed Salisu, Joseph Aidoo, Thomas Partey, Iddrisu Baba] who have played in Spain, or still do, and they have helped me a lot. They speak Spanish and have explained things to me. I understand almost everything that is said to me in England, but it's hard to express myself. I'm giving everything I can, trying to contribute my little bit. I am very happy to have decided this."

The fans are happy that he's decided, too. Every run, even if most lead to little so far, gets a cheer; that flash of electricity. The supporters, who have come from all over Spain, are never silent and still behind the huge Ghana flag stretched across the end as the sun sets. There's expectation, that's for sure. Warmth. A sense that he's special. He is the star, although he doesn't want to be seen as such.

Nor is it just the supporters. At full-time, it is all Williams can do to keep his shirt: asked how many Nicaragua players asked for it, he puffs out his cheeks. Pfff, pretty much all of them. They take it in turns to get photographs with him, one after the other after the other. A girl at the side of the pitch is in tears because she wants his shirt too. As he heads down the tunnel, topless, suddenly he is surrounded. "My God!" exclaims one lady, hugging him hard, excitedly jumping about. More and more pictures, squashed under the stands. Officials come down and embrace him. Some try to help open a path past the people that probably shouldn't be down here, but are.

"It's lovely," he says; it is also slow, taking him a long time to get through to the dressing room. The team didn't play that well, he admits, and for him there are no goals, no assists and no storybook ending -- not yet, not here. But it's been a good night. And when at last he comes back out again, family friends waiting there to deliver the news of Nico, it gets even better.