opinionBy Oko Drammeh
Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all. For those who love Gambian football, Alhagie Njie, generally known as Biri is a hero. Performance at a high level in any sporting discipline is to exceed the ordinary human scale.
But Biri's performance transcended that of the ordinary star by exceeding ordinary performance. He was lithe, agile, and strong and seemed to be able to make the ball do as he pleased. Blessed with a stunning shot and an ability to soar above defenses, he was expected to perform some astonishing feat of trickery every time he was in possession. Simply he was, and for many people still is, the greatest African football player in La Liga.
Not a single thing was impossible for him. His playing style combined pace, acceleration, balance, two-footedness, goal scoring and the ability to beat defenders Biri was a play-maker, ammunition provider and marksman rolled into one, with the ability to time a pass that has hardly "been equaled before or since".
Biri had a compact physique and could withstand physical pressure well. His strong legs and low center of gravity gave him an advantage in short sprints. He has the ability to jump the highest and could stay on air longer than anyone else before to head a ball goal otherwise applying the bicycle kick two meters above ground or make his defenders stunned.
He is a natural born sprinter who have performed 110 meters relay race for the Gambia Athletics team with a record time. He ran the 100 meters dash for club and counter, a 200 meters sprinter and a Long Jumper. He is a complete track and field athlete. He was a strategist and a team player, as well as highly technical with the ball.
He could manage himself effectively in limited spaces, and would attract defenders. One of Biri's trademark moves was dribbling full-speed on the left wing (near the pavilion at Box Bar heading towards the goal post at the Primet Street end), and on reaching the opponent's goal line, delivering accurate passes to his teammates.
Biri Biri was born in Banjul in 1945. He attended Crab Island Secondary School where his talents were first discovered in the Inter-school Soccer competitions when Biri dominated Junior Soccer and brought many honors to his school. Biri started playing active soccer at a tender age for the then Black Star Football Club, a team he only played for once.
Due to his amazing skills, pace and goal-poaching instincts, he was invited to join the Black Diamonds. Again, he caught the attention of other talent scouts, who snatched him. For some time, he plied his trade at the White Phantoms before leaving yet again for Arrance FC, which had a galaxy of stars at the time.
The young talented Biri Biri felt very comfortable at home here, competing with other gifted nimble-footed footballers. One could recall the combination between the late Yusu Samba (Pele) and Biri in his Arrance FC.After winning a championship trophy for Arrnace in 1965, he was again invited to join the famous Augustians Football Club where he stayed for five years.
Biri was pivotal to the team's dominance of football at the time. In 1970 Biri left The Gambia to join Derby County, a first division team in the UK. He returned to The Gambia later and joined Wallidan a team he actually showed a lot of love for and dedication. In 1972, he left for Denmark to play for B 1901, a first division team in that country.
In 1973 he was transferred to the famous Spanish team Sevilla, a team that also fielded famous players like Diego Maradona. Alhaji Biri Njie was honored by his team Sevilla as one of the greatest players in the world and on that occasion Diego Maradona himself took the privilege to have his picture taken with the greatest player that has ever played for Sevilla. After a five-year sojourn in Spain, Biri went to Belgium to play for Aderlect, a first division team.
In 1980 he returned to Denmark to play for Herfolge. In 1981 Biri returned home to continue his incredible career in soccer. Biri has always assisted national coaches and clubs and had himself led the National Squad on many occasions on international competitions. He played for the national team from 1963 to 1987, a record in the history of soccer in this country. In 1985 he was decorated MRG and in 1994 he became Deputy Mayor of Banjul. Biri is an inspiration to all Gambians in particular to the young generation of rising stars.
Gambia had great players, so great that it was not common for The Gambia to play against one of the most feared team in Africa today; Senegal. The Gambia used to play France and the Guinea Bissau team, which was a Portuguese side before Guinea Bissau had their Independence featuring Portuguese top class players like Anterio who played football in Lisbon, Portugal.
For a boy to be a player of football those days, you had to be a community asset in teenage football before joining a football club. The boys were not single handily picked; it was the community that confirms their selection before they can be watched by serious public. There was a sense of community belonging and a pride based in doing anything for the community. Players were stars in their community and they were adored by kids and confidence bestowed into them by the elders.
You have to have adoring fans as a teenager and friends. Admirers would gather at your house psyching your confidence and telling you that you are the best, even giving you spiritual support not to be afraid of anyone to dispose of your talent unto them and win them in the game. When going to play football, your friends would keep safe your shirt and shoes and sit in groups behind the goalpost and watch you do your magic with the ball.
They would provide you with something like a football after coming back from school holidays in Senegal or buy you the expensive Seize-Sport ball costing two shillings and six pence. This was not an ordinary ball for school kids, it was a designed ball with colors and high-octane rubber and can cause damage if kicked at high speed. The footballers had a responsibility on their shoulders from childhood to adulthood (the journey for a footballer back then was a life time journey) and the school league was the grooming point for adoring fans.
All players were recognized as teenagers from Primary school competitions and then to high school competitions before recruitment to junior teams (a branch of the senior teams). All players had a track record from junior level and have done wonders for their schools and their community already. Each of the players would own a ball and carry this ball everywhere at all times and wherever they go, the ball is with them.
They can bounce the ball over 200 times on both feet called "Tobbal" in the local [Wollof] parlance, and they would learn ball controlling and dribbling as they go along. They had a mentality of ball possession and ownership. They mastered all the tricks and all the styles and techniques of ball playing game. They would start a football game on every street they pass by and it is only sleeping time that would separate them with the ball.
One of the most vocal and best organized supporters groups in Spain is named after an African player that I would care to guess most people outside of the Gambia and Seville have very little knowledge of, the almighty Biri Biri, the Gambia footballer from the streets of Banjul and played at the Box Bar Stadium within a galaxy of stars and one of Africa's greatest footballers. The boys of Box Bar are (the Brazil 1970 team in Africa). They are all legends in the history of Gambia Football.
We take a look at the career of Biri and history behind Sevilla's Gambian star "Biri-Biri", a man that is remembered in many ways than one at the club as a Gambia youth with the spirit of Gambian football.
What the international papers are saying about Biri Njie?
Biri was a genius who was constantly reinventing the game of football. With every touch of the ball, every pass, every dribble, Biri was capable of coming up with something new - something the fans had never seen before. With a deadly instinct in front of goal, an eye for the perfect pass and supreme athleticism, the boy from Banjul was just about the perfect footballer. He was unstoppable, allying perfect technique with lightning speed, intelligence and opportunism.
Sevilla's most famous set of fans are the Biris Norte. Their name comes from Alhaji Momodou Nije, more well known as Biri Biri, a Gambian player who became a cult legend during his time at Sevilla in the 70s. Does Alhaji Momodou Njie ring a bell? Probably not, does Biri-Biri as he was commonly known? I would guess not either, but in Seville and in his homeland, he is a legendary figure, talked about in the same breath as a certain Diego Armando Maradona, such was his footballing prowess.
Biri-Biri was born in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia on the 30th March 1948. His first steps into football were playing for local clubs such as Black Star and Black Diamonds, before he got his first senior gig with Augustians FC, for whom he played for, from 1965-1970. Biri was comfortable playing in many positions, but such was his technique and ability to go past defenders, he settled as a right-winger.
Biri signed for Danish side B 1901 in 1972, thus becoming the first African player to play professionally in the Danish league. It was however the following year when Biri got the move that would change his life forever, when he signed for Sevilla CF (note this was still during Franco's regime (former Facist Dictation and Spain's head of State), hence the CF instead of the anglicized FC, as Franco had banned all "non-patriotic" football club names.)
He quickly endeared himself to the passionate crowds at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, with his breath-taking skills and the ability with which he could turn a game. His greatest achievement came in his second year in Seville, when he was instrumental in helping the club gain promotion to the Primera liga.
Biri was a cult-figure for the fans during his five years with Sevilla, and such was his legacy, that the largest organized supporters group in the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Biris Norte 1905 are named in his honour. Most of the foreign players in Spain were not international stars, but exotica - and probably the most exotic footballer belonged to Sevilla. Biri Biri. What a name! Straight from adventure novel
Of course, Biri Biri is a nickname, but his real name was no less exotic: Alhaji Momodou Nije. True to adventure books, he hailed from Africa - The Gambia, to be precise. Not exactly a country known for its football, so the exotic grows larger and larger... which at the end is not fair to the man.
Biri Biri played 5 years for Sevilla - 1973-78 - which is a good testament of his qualities. Perhaps he was not exceptionally gifted player, judging by his checkered career: born 1948 in Banjul, Gambia, he moved from his local club Augustians Football Club to Derby County in 1970. Did not impress Brian Clough and returned home to play for Wallidan Banjul for the next two years. In 1972 went to Denmark - B 1901. So far - nothing much.Sevilla acquired him from the Danes in 1973 and things changed.
He played well in Spain and became a cult figure - a section of Sevilla fans call themselves 'Biris Norte' after him. In 1978, already aging, he moved again to Denmark and played three seasons for Herfolge Boldklub.Post-Sevilla Biri Biri - older player, but with more modern kit in Herfolge. In 1981 he quit European football, returned to Gambia, played 5 more seasons for Wallidan Banjul and finally retired to become a civil servant.
He is considered the all-time best Gambian player. By European standards, his career is less impressive - rather ups and downs, peaking during his spell with Sevilla. However, Sevilla in the 1970s was not the mighty club of nowadays - in 1974-75 Sevilla was still in the Second Division, struggling to get back to Primera after humiliating relegation in 1972......Biri Biri or not, struggling they were. Successfully, in a way - they clinched promotion, although they did not finish first in Secunda.
Spanish Football Legends : "Biri-Biri"
We take a look at the career and history behind Sevilla's Gambian star "Biri-Biri", a man that is remembered in more ways than one at the club. Pocketed in a little corner of the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan are a collective group of supporters called the "Biris Norte", they are known as the oldest "ultras" in football beginning in 1975.
The name "Biris Norte" is made up of two parts, the end "norte" is Spanish for north as the members of the hardcore group always sit behind the north goal. The first part of their name comes from a little known legend "Biri-Biri", a Gambian footballer who played for Sevilla 30 years ago.
Alhaji Momodou Njie or "Biri-Biri" as he was known throughout football started his career in Gambia playing amateur football for various clubs. Never dreaming of making it big or in fact knowing of what the European football world involved, he left his native country and was signed by Brian Clough at Derby County.
His dream of making it big in football had barely begun before he returned to his home country, that was until Danish side B 1901 snapped up the winger in 1972. He became the first ever Gambian to play in Europe and quickly impressed for the Danish outfit, his performances saw interest from bigger European clubs grow and it eventually led to Spanish club Sevilla making a move.
Sevilla spotted the Gambian at a training camp in Gambia years prior to his move to Denmark and renewed their interest after his fine performances in the Danish league. In 1973, "Biri-Biri" signed for Sevilla - A move that would ultimately make him the big star he had longed to be.
"My best moment in my career was when I helped Seville to gain promotion to the Spanish First Division league in my second year with the club," Biri-Biri told BBC Sport in 2005. "I was so popular in Seville throughout my five-years spent with them because I delivered very well and I was considered one of their best players.I was the first black player to play for the club.I was a complete footballer since I was skillful, a great goal scorer and very fast on the ball."
For many, "Biri-Biri" is still regarded as one of the best African footballers to grace the European game, he never won a medal in his career but his time with Sevilla will always be remembered. He was the outsider who was welcomed with open arms and played through his heart, all for the love of football and it is through the ultra group "Biris-Norte" that keeps him at the club forever.
Every club has icons, players they don't forget, stars that play an important piece of their history and little known Gambian footballer "Biri-Biri" is one of Sevilla's.