There has always been a condescending stigma attached when a talented player leaves Europe for the eastern side of the world: Asamoah Gyan was disowned by football purists for turning down a career in Europe to play in the Middle East in 2013, and recently again as he moved to China, joining players such as Paulinho, Demba Ba and Robinho in making the move to the Chinese Super League this transfer window.
Xavi, one of the finest players of his generation, has moved to Qatar this summer. Financial incentives remain the premier attraction behind these moves, and as professional players they are entitled to make transfers which benefit them in such a way. However there was a time when no European-based player would dare journey so far, least of all a player with a successful career behind them and an outstanding reputation to maintain.
Step forward Gabriel Batistuta, who exactly 12 years ago, aged 34 and still capable of playing at the highest level – as evidenced by the fact Manchester United had wanted him a few months earlier – went and had an outstanding two-year spell in a country nowadays negatively associated with football: Qatar.
The year is 2003. Before the allegations of bribery, corruption and remarks about ruining the essence of football would hit years later, Qatar made no headlines in the world of football; they were an unknown quantity, yet you could say plans to make a mark on the footballing world begun that year, when Al-Arabi signed Gabriel Batistuta on a reported £5 million two-year contract. In a later interview, the Argentine superstar would say, “I was at the end of my professional career. I wanted another experience, I wanted to learn about another culture. If I went to Spain or England it would have been something very similar to what I had already experienced.”
This wasn’t a move motivated purely by finances; Batistuta was aware his body could not handle the intensity of a European league anymore, and he also wanted to introduce his family to a new culture, so Qatar provided the perfect solution for him.
Batistuta, a nemesis to England fans during France 98, had carved out a distinguished career in Italy, playing for Inter Milan, Roma and most famously, Fiorentina, whilst also scoring 56 goals for Argentina in only 78 games. A hero at La Viola for his remarkable scoring record, he still holds the league record for most consecutive goals, netting in each of the first eleven games of the 1994-95 Serie A season.
Yet Batistuta wanted more, and his goalscoring exploits deserved more. The fans affectionately nicknamed him ‘Batigol’, such was the seamless association he had with goals, and Diego Maradona called him “the greatest goalscorer that I saw in my life”. As he approached his thirties, Batistuta decided to make the big move and chase the scudetto which had eluded him for his whole career at Fiorentina.
Batistuta joined AS Roma in 2000, winning the title in his debut season at the club, scoring 20 goals that season in 28 games, and helping Roma win the league for the first time since 1982. Unfortunately injuries and age begun to take their toll in the seasons proceeding that and he was loaned out to Inter Milan for the second half of the 2002-03 Serie A campaign. These last six months in Italy proved to be lacklustre for the famed hitman; he scored twice in 12 league games and decided a change of scenery was needed.
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Read | Gabriel Batistuta: the textbook finisher who inspired a generation
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Rumours persisted of a move to Manchester United, and Fulham had been on the verge of agreeing a deal to sign him, but Batistuta decided to make the move to Qatar in the summer of 2003. It was a risky move: Romário had joined Doha-based club Al Sadd only a few months earlier and left after three games.
Mention the words ‘Qatar’ and ‘Football’ in 2015 and you’ll be met with talk of greed, corruption and how the modern game has fallen foul to bribery. The 2022 World Cup has put intense media scrutiny on the small, oil-rich nation of just over two million people, and with the FIFA bribery scandal of the last few months, that scrutiny has magnified intensely within the media. In 2003, however, such word associations were not plied on the nation, and the Batistuta move understandably received low fan-fare.
Al-Arabi was a Qatari club in a state of decline after a golden period of success in the 1990s, and Batistuta was their marquee move, designed to announce their intentions of becoming the top club in the Middle East once again. It was also the start of Qatar’s initiative to use their vast finances and recruit foreign players to help develop local talent in the long-term. The Qatari Football Association reportedly provided financial support to clubs in order to secure foreign talent.
Things did not take long to gel for Batistuta in Qatar – he scored 12 minutes into his debut, a friendly match against Emirati club Al Shabab, and from that point onwards he never really stopped finding the net. Faster and physically stronger than the local Qatari players, and with vast experience of playing at the highest level in both club and international competition, Batistuta excelled in his new home. Video footage of his goalscoring exploits in Qatar can be found online – the awareness and physical skill he brought to Qatar is clear in the way he navigates himself in the box, pulling away from defenders with ease and finding the target with clinical precision. Even aged 34 and suffering from injuries, he was a completely different level to anything ever seen before in the league.
Batistuta broke the record for most goals in a single season in Qatar, netting 25 times in 21 games, breaking an 18-year goalscoring record held by national legend Mansoor Muftah. He was a player enjoying his game as he came to the end of his career, and the Qatari fans were in awe of him; a genuine world-class player in the flesh, gracing Qatari pitches on a weekly basis to provide a masterclass in goalscoring to all who stood in front of him.
He played with a smile on his face too. The joy of simply scoring a goal was a painfully rare moment for him in his last season in calcio, yet here he was in Qatar like a kid playing the game he loved. It didn’t matter what level his opponents were playing at and the salary did not matter to a player who, more than any in the modern game, had been defined by scoring goals. This was a return to normality, Batigol had returned for one last time before riding off into the sunset. Even after retiring completely from football in 2005, Batistuta retained links with the small nation, serving as an ambassador in 2009 for Qatar’s successful – and controversial – 2022 World Cup bid.
When asked for his opinion on Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup, Batistuta said: “From my playing experience in Qatar I know that it is a country and a region which will host a spectacular and passionate World Cup in 2022. It is this message which I want to bring to the world in this exciting new role: here is an exciting new football market waiting to be uncovered.”
With Qatar eventually winning the bid, it is likely Batistuta will return sporadically over the next few years as an ambassador to champion the cause of the country which he formed an unlikely affinity with.
After retiring, Batistuta spent his days in rural Argentina, fishing and playing polo, yet the football itch has returned to him; earlier this year he declared an interest in becoming a manager, possibly in Qatar: “There is plenty of opportunity to see me as a coach here,” he said. “I am free, so why not? I am free and I like living here, and the lifestyle, so why not? I am open for a chance.”
As Xavi flies out to join Al Sadd this month, and Gianfranco Zola takes over as manager of Al-Arabia, it is pertinent to remember the precedent set by Gabriel Batistuta. In many ways he added much-needed credibility to Qatar’s project, and over the years players such as Frank de Boer, Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola and Raúl would all find themselves playing in the Qatari league.
The story of Batigol’s signing is one which can be viewed as the first step on Qatar’s long road to securing the 2022 World Cup. While some may look down on his move to a less competitive league as one purely made up of financial motivation, later health issues, including the tragic story of him asking for his legs to be amputated by doctors in order to end the pain caused by his knees, tell us that the Qatar move was motivated by his inherent desire to simply continue playing the game without further damaging himself. Batistuta was a champion on the pitch, and a pioneer off it.
By Santokie Nagulendran. Follow @San_Toki_