MADRID (AP) — With his well-timed header across the area setting up a decisive goal, forward Nico Williams may have secured his spot in Spain’s World Cup squad.
The 20-year-old Williams came off the bench to assist Álvaro Morata’s 88th-minute winner in a victory over Portugal that guaranteed Spain a spot in the Nations League’s Final Four tournament on Tuesday.
And that may have also guaranteed him a spot in Qatar despite only two appearances with the national team. Although he hasn't started or scored, his performances prompted widespread praise and boosted his chances of being picked by Spain coach Luis Enrique with fans showing their excitement about him on social media.
“Nico was the difference-maker, he changed the pace of the game,” Spain midfielder Rodri said after Spain's 1-0 win over Portugal. “He came in with confidence and that was what we needed. It was a great assist and Álvaro was there to finish it.”
Morata and his teammates rushed toward Williams to celebrate the game-winning goal. The striker only had to find the open net after Williams went behind a defender by the far post to head the ball back across the goalmouth off a well-placed cross by Dani Carvajal.
“Morata told me the goal was mine,” Williams said. “I saw him there and just made the pass.”
Only victory was enough for Spain after it had lost at home to Switzerland in the second-to-last round.
“In only his second game, Nico was key,” Morata said. “I just had to push the ball into the goal.”
Williams had already added a spark to Spain's squad in the nearly 30 minutes he played off the bench in his debut against Switzerland, and impressed beyond the assist in the 20 minutes or so he was on the field on Tuesday.
“For me it’s an honor to be here,” Williams said. “Hopefully I can make it to the World Cup, but that’s a decision for the coach.”
After selecting Williams for the first time, Luis Enrique praised him as a "true winger" with speed and nifty dribbling ability.
“He told me to be brave and to be myself,” Williams said about the coach's advice before coming into the match on Tuesday, when he was a 73rd-minute replacement to Ferran Torres.
The other forwards called up by Luis Enrique, and likely also contending for a World Cup spot, included Pablo Sarabia, Marco Asensio, Borja Iglesias and Yeremy Pino. The coach left another youngster out, 19-year-old Ansu Fati, because he hadn't been playing much with Barcelona. Fati will likely be the main challenger to Williams' place in the squad.
Williams could end up joining his older brother in Qatar, Iñaki, who also plays for Athletic Bilbao and looks set to play for Ghana at the World Cup.
The Williams brothers were born in Spain to parents who are from Ghana and moved to Spain several decades ago. To stay in the country, they were advised by a charity worker to say they had fled a civil war in Liberia.
The brothers are among the few Black players to ever play for Athletic, the traditional Spanish club that signs local-born players or those who have come through the soccer academies of teams in the Basque region.
The club is reportedly trying to expedite an increase of Nico Williams’ buyout clause, which is at 50 million euros ($47.8 million) on a contract that ends in 2024.
It knows that in a few months, depending on what happens in Qatar, he may be worth a lot more than that.
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Tales Azzoni, The Associated Press