Penalty hero eyeing Liberia World Cup landmark
Ashley Williams is the starting goalkeeper for the Liberian national team
He became a national hero after saving a penalty in a Qatar 2022 qualifying match
The young shot-stopper has set no limits on what he can achieve in his care
In Liberian football, the label of ‘hero’ can often resonate beyond the boundaries of the pitch. The most famous example of this phenomenon is George Weah, who became President of the country after enjoying an extraordinary career performing in the beautiful game.
Goalkeeper Ashley Williams, who was instrumental in the Lone Stars’ dramatic qualification for the second round of the African qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, does not appear to harbour similar aspirations. What is certain, however, is that he also entered into Liberian sporting legend on 8 September 2019, when he was just 18.
Having beaten their next-door neighbours and rivals Sierra Leone 3-1 in the first leg of the first round of the Qatar 2022 qualifiers, Liberia were trailing 1-0 in the return match in Freetown. In the 95th minute of the crucial clash, the home side were handed a last-gasp chance to seal their qualification, when their influential captain, Umaru Bangura, stepped up to take a penalty kick. Williams had other ideas, though, and dived low to his left to make a memorable and decisive save. “I don’t regard myself as a penalty specialist; in fact, it’s not even something I’m particularly fond of,” the young ’keeper told FIFA.com. “But that day I was inspired. My technique is about as basic as you can get: based on whether the penalty taker is right-footed or left-footed, I dive to one side or the other. Right-footed players often aim for the goalie’s left, and vice versa for left-footers. And that’s how it played out that day!”
In the genes
What made this achievement all the more remarkable was the young man’s lack of experience at the time. When he saved the penalty, Williams had only played as a goalkeeper for four seasons. Originally a left-back, he decided to try his luck between the sticks a little later. “I wasn’t energetic enough to play outfield,” explained the Liberian custodian, whose father, Emmanuel Williams, and uncle, Sunday Seah, were also goalkeepers. “But the position of goalkeeper is a bit less demanding from that point of view. One day my team was missing their ’keeper, so I seized my chance, and it worked out well. I’ve played this role ever since.” Four years later, courtesy of his intervention, Liberia earned the right to continue dreaming about a first-ever appearance on the World Cup stage. Having had a low profile beforehand, Williams became a star in his homeland overnight. “That day, 8 September 2019, is one that I’ll obviously never forget,” he explained. “It was a big challenge for us, and there was a lot of pressure on our shoulders. But everything panned out like a dream. Since then, a lot of things have changed in my life, starting with my move to Europe.” Williams now plays at Real Balompedica Linense, in the Spanish third tier. But his ambition knows no bounds: “I’m a big fan of Manuel Neuer. He’s got attributes that any young ’keeper would love to have. My greatest wish is to follow in his footsteps and one day play with Bayern Munich. Who knows? I’ve come so far already, jumping so many hurdles to get to where I am today – I’m proof that anything is possible and that you should never give up!”
Twenty-year Nigeria reunion
Williams’ confidence is certainly not unwelcome as his team prepares to get their second-round adventure underway with a much-anticipated encounter with Nigeria on 3 September. “We can’t wait for the second round to get going,” he confirmed. “The Lone Stars have a lot of quality, and a good mix of youth and experience. It’s just what we need to turn our World Cup dream into a reality.”
Almost two decades ago, his country came close to realising that dream. In a group containing Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan, the Liberians, featuring a George Weah who was approaching the end of his incredible career, finished second in their quest to qualify for Korea/Japan 2002, just one point behind the Super Eagles.
“George Weah made the whole of Africa proud, not just Liberians,” said Williams, before concluding, “He’s my President! He encouraged us to push ourselves to our limits. He showed the way, and proved that it can be done.”