In Spanish football, fan culture and identity is a massive deal. The vast majority of clubs have ‘ultra’ groups who usually have a political lining which they associate themselves with, and these stances are often made obvious by their banners, flags or songs and behaviour.
Over the years there have been lots of problems relating to these supporters groups, and the authorities have often been forced to get involved – violence and racism being two of the prime issues.
And while they are no angels, a positive race issue is what sets Sevilla‘s ultras, the Biris Norte, apart from the rest.
It all started with Alhaji Momodo Njie, a Gambian winger who played for the club in the 1970s. He became the first black player in their history, as well as the first Gambian to appear in La Liga. To this day he is regarded as the country’s greatest ever, while people in his home country also consider him among Africa’s best.
A powerful, immensely athletic and technically sound wide player, Njie – or ‘Biri Biri’ as he was more commonly known – was a key component of the Sevilla team for only a couple of years, but he helped the club back into the top flight and became a fixture in the starting XI, before a broken leg hampered his influence on the pitch.
“I class Biri Biri even above Maradona because he was a great goalscorer, dribbler and could play with both feet. Biri Biri is the best player Africa has ever produced.”
Former teammate Alhaji Babou Sowe to BBC Sport in 2005.
Earlier on in his career he also encountered Brian Clough at Derby County, though the legendary manager felt Biri Biri wasn’t good enough in his trial and any career in England failed to take off. Certainly something of an oversight on Clough’s part.
His work rate, character and charm made him the crowd’s darling in Sevilla. He enjoyed such a rapport with the supporters behind the north goal at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan that they began to refer to themselves as the “Biri Biri”.
That was eventually altered to Biris Norte, which they still go by to this day.
Spanish football does have an all-too-familiar relationship with racism, though the Biris Norte prove that it is unfair to tar everyone with the same brush.
But the Biris Norte title is in danger or disappearing. At the start of February, Sevilla revealed plans to confiscate any Biris Norte “propaganda” at the stadium due to an incident in December when Juventus visited.
A group of Juve fans were attacked by a select few associated with Sevilla and, with their hand seemingly somewhat forced by the Spanish football authorities, the club have banned all evidence of the Biris Norte from being present in the stadium.
As a result, the group – who distanced themselves from the actions of a few – are vowing not to step foot in the stadium until the ban is lifted, a move which will see the match atmosphere greatly diminish.
“That the cessation of activity will be in all aspects, and we ask the members of Biris Norte that from today everything they do is in a personal way, and not as members of a collective. Biris Norte is not responsible for any act, neither positive nor negative, made on its behalf.
“We put it to the club to sit with us and give a solution to this situation as soon as possible. In a season that may be historic, we should not allow anyone from Madrid create a civil war in the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán.”
Biris Norte statement.
Once a symbol of unity, inclusion and respect, the Biris Norte have been grossly impacted by the terrible actions of 11 “supporters”, with the authorities using this as an opportunity to silence a group which has long been vocal against their poor running of football in Spain, particularly president Javier Tebas.
Yet, Sevilla and Spain are not isolated incidents. The same could be said in countries such as England, and in particular with Manchester City. The Citizens have a notorious reputation with hooliganism, having the highest number of arrests in the Premier League for the 2015/16 season.
But, in similar fashion to Sevilla, it’s a select few who are creating a reputation amongst the blue half of Manchester. CLICKON followed one of the firms leaders, Carl Moran, to try and understand the motivation behind the violence. And where the motivations differ from a cult-hero such as ‘Biri Biri’, the reasoning behind the Manchester group comes from a buzz and an excitement; similar to going into a boxing ring.
“For the one day where it does happen [an organised fight], when it does go right, when it does go off, it’s top. And that’s worthwhile for all the s*** days.
“You’re stressed, you’re excited; it’s the same sort of thing to a boxer, he walks into the ring; he knows he’s about to have a fight, he’s a bit anxious and worried, so it’s a similar sort of thing”
There is no more obvious case in scenario when Sevilla fans themselves clashed with Manchester City in a 2015 Champions League clash. What’s interesting about the clashes are that it was a relatively small group of 20-25 were involved in the spats, with four arrests being made, as police reported how a fight broke out on Exchange Square.
***Update from arrests earlier**** a 4th male was arrested after being found hiding in a restaurant near where the other 3 were detained.
— GMP City Centre (@GMPCityCentre) October 21, 2015
This seems a relatively small amount who were involving themselves in violence before kick-off. However, none of the arrests made were from either Sevilla or City supporters, and it is said they were involved from Polish side, Slask Wroclaw.
It’s been stated that the reason for the clash was due to a Europa League dispute between fans of Sevilla and Slask Wroclaw in 2013. This again highlights how there is a small minority who create these scenes; people who are willing to involve themselves, such as the case with City and Sevilla. But, it also seems a problem engrained within Polish football greater than it is, in either English or Spanish culture.
The motivation appears more pre-mediated from the likes of Polish support, the need for revenge. Where City hooligans seek a buzz, the reasoning behind the violence appears more of a blurred characteristic.