SOMETIMES, WATCHING FOOTBALL leaves an indelible mark on a young boy’s imagination. In 1999, I was seven years old and my obsession with Manchester United was reaching new heights after watching them win the Champions League in the most dramatic of circumstances. That night, when I should have been readying myself for school the following morning, I descended on my front garden and re-enacted Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s famous last-gasp strike with my trusty Mitre ball and a set of nets that were horribly mangled from sustaining shot after shot from my uneducated right foot.
In similar vein, what I witnessed a little less than a year later in March 2000 roused that same self-belief that I could recreate another display of a footballing master class: Gabriel Batistuta, centre stage in the Theatre of Dreams. I knew nothing of this player as I had zero exposure to Italian football at that formative stage in my life.
The Argentine goal machine picks up the ball well over thirty yards out; no danger one would presume. Not with Batistuta on the ball. The hair-banded predator effortlessly eludes the challenge of Jaap Stam – who was far from Titus Bramble back then – before unleashing the most jaw-dropping missile of a shot I had ever witnessed, screeching through the air and fizzing past a helpless Raymond van der Gouw. Old Trafford was silenced by a rocket. I was staggered by this extraordinary goal.
I had never seen a professional footballer rip into a piece of leather quite like the way Batistuta did that night. The power and precision he generated was unprecedented in my eyes. Unsurprisingly, I had become comfortably accustomed to David Beckham’s faultless foot-wrapping free-kick strikes. Granted, Beckham’s portfolio of set-piece goals is a thing of beauty, but there was just something about the way the ball was dispatched from Batistuta’s boot that got to me.
I proceeded to set three footballs side-by-side in my front garden and batter them with all my might in the hope that I would look up and see the ball scream into the roof of the net in a fashion not dissimilar to the Argentine’s. What resulted was a few angry neighbours and appallingly dented garage door. What a fool I was to believe that I could emulate the brilliance of Batistuta. Through his exploits at Newell’s Old Boys, Boca Juniors, Fiorentina and then Roma, Batistuta had developed the most insatiable appetite for goals imaginable and his education at those clubs cultivated a technique of striking the football so efficient in appeasing that appetite.
Batistuta’s footballing odyssey began in Rosario, Argentina’s third city, with Newell’s. Batistuta had been spotted by Jorge Griffa, Old Boy’s youth team manager at that time, who persuaded the young protégé to leave home for the first time in his life and pursue a career in professional football. Batistuta was initially apprehensive due to his commitment to family and education but agreed after the club agreed to pay for his education in Rosario.
The youngster impressed instantly in one of Argentina’s finest youth academies and soon broke into the first team, where he made his debut in 1988 and played in the Copa Libertadores final. Batistuta’s proficiency inside the penalty box struck fear into Old Boy’s rivals. He became known as ‘The Animal’ due to his strength and tenacity in breaking free from defenders, finding space and dispatching goals in clinical style. Old Boy’s supporters adored his hard work and determination.
Fans of football always love a fighter, a player with great heart, and Batistuta fit the bill perfectly in these regards. His education finished and he struggled to find work so in order to continue playing for Old Boy’s Batistuta cut the grass on the pitch, cleaned windows and picked up rubbish in the stands for enough to get by. Money did not matter to him. He was prepared to earn just about enough so he could continue playing football.
With his stock rising rapidly, Batistuta made the difficult decision to move to River Plate. What made it difficult was the fact that he was a lifelong supporter of Plate’s arch-nemesis, Boca Juniors. What Batistuta wanted more than anything though was to score goals and he saw River Plate as the best place for him to achieve that.
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However, Daniel Passarella, the heroic captain of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning team, did not see great potential in Batistuta and opted to omit him from regular first-team football. Batistuta, hurt and surprised, did not let this deter him. He harnessed the pain from watching on as his River Plate colleagues played without him and used it to make him mentally tougher. He began to train harder, focus on his strengths and hone his skills to become the ultimate goalscorer.
The results very much speak for themselves. Having grown weary of Passarella’s ignorance at Plate, Batistuta crossed town to his boyhood idols Boca. He was initially played out of position by Osvaldo Potente but Óscar Tabárez arrived to replace him and immediately recognised Batistuta as the ultimate focal point of attack. He moved him to centre-forward and Batistuta repaid the favour with goals aplenty.
He enraptured the vociferous Boca fans and forged a wonderfully productive partnership with Boca’s chief conductor, Diego Latorre. Batistuta holds his time with Boca close to his heart; he genuinely connected with the fans. For him, that was what professional football was all about; exciting fans, feeling adored and being part of a team that would be remembered in years to come.
Major honours and trophies proved hard to come by in Buenos Aires – it would become a recurring motif of his storied career – but Batistuta was fulfilled by the sense that his play excited the fans regardless of where they finished. It was the eye-catching displays at Boca that got Europe talking. Tabárez became increasingly aware of the European clubs circling Batistuta and was resigned to losing his most lethal weapon. Batistuta was eager for a fresh challenge and an opportunity to introduce the world to the phenomenon of ‘Batigol’.
He provided potential suitors with an unforgettable audition during the 1991 Copa América for Argentina, when he finished as the tournament’s top-scorer with six strikes. His goals and performances prompted Fiorentina to move for him and the rest is history; that year, fans in Florence fell in love with Batistuta and adore him to this day.
Batistuta determinedly overcame the difficulty in adapting to a different culture and style of football in Italy, and began showing teams in Serie A why Fiorentina placed their belief in him. He scored 14 goals in his first season and 19 the following campaign. However, his second year was overshadowed by troubles at La Viola and they were relegated to Serie B.
The fans at the Artemio Franchi stadium panicked at the thought of losing their star player and favourite son. They had adopted Batistuta as one of their own and feared that the advances of European superpowers AC Milan and Real Madrid would prove irresistible to him. He was having none of it. Batistuta, characteristically disregarding the allure of money and prestige attached to a move to a major club, decided to stay in Florence and help his adopted club fight back to Serie A.
His 16 goals in Serie B helped Fiorentina back to the high table in Italian football and endeared the Argentine even deeper into the hearts of the fans. In modern football, it is too easy for a talented player standing out in a struggling team to flee when trouble strikes, but not for Batistuta. He has since said that he could have easily moved to Real Madrid or Manchester United but he never had any interest in leaving Fiorentina for either of them. For him, the challenge of improving an underachieving Fiorentina was more attractive than jumping on the express train of one of Europe’s big clubs collecting trophies effortlessly. This was the truest expression of Batistuta’s approach to football; he was always willing to fight, always willing to work hard to earn a reputation and relationship with the fans.
He went on to cement his place as arguably Fiorentina’s greatest ever player, certainly their greatest goalscorer. He amassed over 200 goals during his nine years clad in purple before finally ending his adventure with Fiorentina in favour of a fresh challenge in another hallowed Italian city.
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In the capital with Roma, Batistuta finally won the scudetto that had eluded him and forged a devastating partnership with club legend Francesco Totti. Becoming a champion of Italy with Roma was a historic moment for both the club and the player. Roma had finally returned to the top after an 18-year barren spell and Batistuta was able to call himself a champion.
He knew that although he had left Fiorentina and won the trophy they could never manage with Roma, he was still adored by the Florence faithful. There were no cries of Judas and no vendetta. Fiorentina knew they had kept the player as long as they could and they were forever grateful for his service, regardless of what he did following his departure.
Perhaps the saddest mark on an illustrious time in football for Batistuta is the World Cup. He represented his country at three finals’ and played well in all of them. He remains to this day the only player to score a hat-trick in two different World Cups; a beautiful distinction to have.
Goals and recognition were juxtaposed with a narrative of heartache for Batistuta in the World Cup, though, as Argentina never came close to winning it during his time in the squad. In 1994, Batistuta and Argentina started their campaign brilliantly with a 4-0 destruction of Greece. Batistuta claimed a hat-trick in his first-ever World Cup match but that elation quickly faded with the events that followed.
Argentina’s ’94 journey will forever be remembered for Diego Maradona’s expulsion from the tournament after testing positive for ephedrine. In the aftermath of that shattering story, Argentina failed to carry on without him and were eliminated at the hands of Romania. Batistuta refused to use Maradona’s discrepancy as an excuse for their poor performance and was determined to make up for it in his next World Cup.
It wasn’t to be, however, for one of Argentina’s most gifted marksmen as they were bettered by a memorable Dennis Bergkamp strike in the quarter-finals in France 1998 and Batistuta was again left in dismay. Things got even worse in Batistuta’s swansong in 2002 as they were beaten by England and failed to see off Sweden as they tumbled out of Korea and Japan in the group stage.
At the end of the Sweden match, Batistuta broke down in tears. He knew he would never play in the World Cup again. Players often cry when they are sent packing from the World Cup but I remember feeling the pain of Batistuta, having become a fond admirer of him since that wonder goal at Old Trafford. Here was a man whose passion and emotion poured out of him relentlessly. I can’t help at this moment feel as if Batistuta didn’t get back from the game what he gave. He always exuded the fervour that every top-flight professional footballer should.
In his later years, Batistuta wound down his career in Qatar, scoring goals for fun in a lesser league. After an ill-fated spell with Internazionale, he knew his time at the highest level had come to an end. His move to Qatar was not just motivated by money, though. Batistuta was always acutely aware of his limitations and he felt it necessary to bow out gracefully from Italian football and introduce his family to a different culture.
Recent revelations about his plea to doctors to amputate his legs suggest that Batistuta played through the pain barrier for much of his career but I thank him sincerely for doing so for the memories he bestowed upon me and for staying a truly respectable footballer for his entire career