Death, they say, is a bad harvester, often plugging off the unripe fruit or the most important. And so, when death struck the Gambia’s greatest footballer yesterday with the passing of Biri-Biri, the entire nation and people in faraway Spain, where he also played, had a hole punched in their hearts.
The same goes for footballers and fans who remembered him around the region as the poster boy of Gambian football.
Alhaji Njie Biri-Biri was the greatest thing to happen in Gambian football. He was pacy, energetic, charismatic and endowed with dazzling dribbling skills unrivaled in the entire region. His commanding presence in the line up of the then Gambia Eleven was intimidating enough for any opposition from Dakar to Lagos.
Biri tantalized his peers, amazed his seniors and provided the single largest contribution to club and national team football, from his native Gambian clubs White Phantoms to Wallidan in the domestic league, and B107 and Seville in Denmark and Spain respectively. Commentators agreed Biri was the best-known African player in European leagues at the time, compared only perhaps to the likes of Eusébio and his fame rested on solid personal achievement.
He left a lasting impression in the hearts of fans of Spanish giants Seville in a way no man did. He helped the team gain promotion to the top flight in the 1970s and that is where they stay to this day. A part of the Seville stadium is named after him and the people who sit there to this day call themselves B-i-r-i-s.
Throughout his life Biri was never divorced from the game. He served in many advisory capacities both at his native club Wallidan and at national team level. Successive generation of Gambian players after him always vowed they wanted to be the next Biri but few will claim they even come near him.
He was one of few who did not need introduction everywhere he went in The Gambia and in the region. The Senegalese media called him ‘Pele de Gambie’. He received many awards of recognition including a life-time achievement award in football by the Sports Journalists’ Association of the Gambia, SJAG, among others.
Outside football Biri was a man of the people. Soft spoken, open and accommodating to all. His Perseverance Street residence was always flooded with admirers and football lovers felt at home savoring the hospitality and friendship of Magji as they affectionately called him. Indeed, Biri was so down to earth and jovial for his good with some people often wondering whether he sometimes meant what he said. He was never out of reach; neither was he tired of attending to any assignment delegated to him officially or voluntarily.
As he pulled his last breath in a Dakar hospital, Biri must be himself feeling that he was leaving a nation which loved him beyond bounds and will miss him.
And talking about the love for him we would like to, at this juncture thank the many Gambians and institutions who stood by him during the period his health started failing. Among them of course is the Gambia Government, through the Chief protocol Alagie Ceesay and finance minister Mambury Njie as well as the Gambia Football Federation. The efforts of the Gambian football enthusiasts in the diaspora could not be forgotten through people like Coach Pa Samba Jaw, Tijan Massaneh Ceesay, Michael Nicole, Dawda Njie, Fala Njie, BO Njie, Buharry, Njok Malick, Omar Drammeh, Saul Sowe among others.
To the memory of Biri Biri we say, legends never die, and heroes are never forgotten. Rest in perfect peace.