For a man who has been coveted as one of the greatest strikers in Italian football’s long and illustrious history, Gabriel Batistuta’s career is littered with few honours. But in almost every aspect of forward play, Batigol – as his fans call him – excelled. He was as strong in the air as he was deadly with his feet – agile, intelligent and strong, Batistuta took almost every good attribute of every great forward and moulded them all into a demi-god of striking.
Like many of the Hall of Fame‘s previous entrants, Gabriel Batistuta emerged from humble beginnings. Born to a slaughterhouse working father in a small city outside of Buenos Aires, Batigol originally took to basketball. But in 1978, a nine-year-old Batistuta witnessed his nation triumph on home soil in the World Cup, and inspired to emulate Mario Kempes, Batistuta’s attentions turned to the beautiful game. His work-ethic, physique and natural ability attracted many admirers, but it was his two goals for local side Platense against Newell’s Old Boys of Rosario that earned him his first professional contract.
His first steps into professional football weren’t easy ones for such a young lad to take. Suffering from weight issues and home-sickness, Bati’s time at Newell’s Old Boys was tough. But, united with Marco Bielsa, a coach he’d eventually join up with in the Argentina national side, Batistuta proved his class and earned himself a move to River Plate.
“They weren’t easy times. I missed my family a lot and didn’t have much money. More than once I thought about going home.”
- Batistuta talks about his tough spell at Newell’s Old Boys -
While River Plate may be one of the most prestigious clubs in all of Argentina, Batistuta’s time with the club wasn’t any easier than his year at Newell’s Old Boys. Signing in 1989 – Batigol made a handful of appearances before River hired Daniel Passarella to be the team’s new coach. Passarella, the man who’d captained the Argentines to World Cup glory in ’78, a man who led the team Batistuta idolised so, turned out to be a man Batigol himself would never see eye-to-eye with.
After several run-ins and differences of opinion, Batistuta departed. Astonishingly, Batigol left for River’s oldest and fiercest rivals, Boca Juniors. Considered the fiercest rivalry in football, Batistuta became one of only a few players to ever cross the divide between the two teams when he signed in 1990. Perhaps the move was made in spite of Passarella, perhaps not, but either way, it was to be Batigol who’d have the last laugh.
In just two short years at the club, he became a fans favourite and helped Oscar Tabárez’s team to the 1991 Argentine title, scooping top goalscorer along the way, with 17 goals. ’91 was to be a stellar year for our protagonist, as his call up to the national team for the Copa América in Chile ended in glory. Bati finished top of the scoring charts, with six goals, and Argentina won their first Copa since 1959. If there were football fans in South America would didn’t know Batistuta’s name by 1990, they’d learnt it by the end of that tournament. But, crucially, it’d be admirers – gained during that Chilean triumph – from another continent that’d shape the next decade of his distinguished career.
Oddly enough, when Fiorentina’s Vice President opened his chequebook to sign Batistuta, he did so with less enthusiasm as with his signing of Batigol’s Boca teammate, Diego Latorre. But while Latorre, one of the first Argentines to be dubbed ‘the new Maradona’, stuttered in Europe with La Viola, Batigol was an instant hit. In his first season with Fiorentina, Batistuta notched thirteen goals – remarkable considering Calico’s infamous defensive era was still flourishing. But just as Batistuta had begun to settle, disaster struck his new club.
The 1992/1993 season was a dark one for Fiore. Their club owner, Mario Cecchi Gori passed away, leaving the club in financial ruin. The club had long-since been bankrolled by their quiet and assured owner, but with his death came about a tumultuous era under Cecchi Gori’s son. Relegated to Serie B, amidst widespread crisis at the club, even Batigol’s sixteen goals were not enough to stabilise the sinking club’s fortunes.
1993 was certainly a year in which Fiore’s fans would come to truly appreciate Batistuta’s loyalty to the club. Despite huge interest from the top clubs in Spain and England, Batigol stuck by the stricken Italian club and under Claudio Ranieri, Fiorentina were promoted straight back into Serie A. A further sixteen goals – taking his tally at the club to 45 in just three seasons – endeared him to the club’s faithful supporters, who were by now idolising their exotic striker. The summer of ’93 also presented Batigol with another shot at the Copa América, which, rather predictably ended in glory.
And by the time the 1994 World Cup rolled around, the Argentines were a much fancied outfit. With Diego Maradona still a useful forward, La Albiceleste also now had Claudio ‘Son of the Wind’ Caniggia and Batistuta up front. Indeed, the promise Argentina held seemed well founded when they thrashed group rivals Greece 4-0 in the opening game – of course, Bati scored a hat-trick no less. But, in one of the World Cup’s most controversial moments, El Diego was sent home after just two games having failed a drugs test. The Argentines were duly rocked and exited the competition in the round of sixteen.
“He was the best striker we ever had here (in Argentina) and we’re never going to see his like again – we’re not going to see anything like him from anyone, no matter what they’re called. For me, he was the greatest goalscorer that I saw in my life.”
A summer spent chasing World Cup glory might have sapped energy from some players, but not Batigol. No, the striker seemed invigorated by Fiorentina’s return to the Italian topflight, scoring in each of La Viola’s first 11 matches of the season – breaking Ezio Pascutti’s record of 10 consecutive goal-scoring appearances. He ended the season on 26 goals, his highest tally yet.
The next few seasons proved Batigol’s class – goal after goal, after goal after goal – even Batistuta’s mere presence in writing on the team-sheet meant trouble for Serie A’s defences. Long-range or short, it didn’t matter to him, Batigol’s confidence and assured touch, skill and flair knew no limits. Soon these desirable skills were earning his club silverware. The 1995/1996 season gave a Batistuta-led Fiore Coppa Italia and Supercoppa glory – but notably, the Scudetto eluded their grasp (keep that in mind).
But as the highly-anticipated 1998 World Cup approached, Batigol was to come back in contact with his old foe, Daniel Passarella. Passarella, put in charge of the national team for the qualifiers, omitted Batistuta initially, but the two finally put their differences aside for the finals. Against Jamaica this peace-making paid dividends, as Bati notched his second World Cup hat-trick – to add him to a list of just four players to have ever scored two hat-tricks on football’s biggest stage.
Argentina were arguably one of the better sides in a thrilling competition, but were undone at the quarter final stage by that dramatic, memorable and purely genius Dennis Bergkamp goal. While it was heartbreak again for Batistuta, it would have been hard for his side to progress further than the quarters anyway, with a delectable Brazilian side awaiting the winners of that tense quarter final clash.
When Batigol returned to Italy in 1998, the club were doing all it could to convince its star-man to stay. They even hired Giovanni Trapattoni in a bid to convince the Argentine that La Viola could still yet win him his much-desired Scudetto medal. Alas, it only worked for two years and in 2000, Batistuta sealed a move to Roma for a fee of around £20million.
Ultimately, Batistuta’s decision to leave La Viola was the right one in his chase for an Italian title, as he scored 20 in 28 appearances and Roma won their first title for 18 years. With the brilliant Francesco Totti dictating Roma’s attacking force and Batigol devastating in converting their moves, Roma were worthy winners of the crown. At last, Batistuta had his hands on the Scudetto title.
Batistuta, for the following season, rather oddly decided to change his shirt number to #20, referencing the amount of goals he’d managed in his first season with Roma, later changing it to #33 to reflect his age.
As the 2002 World Cup approached, so too did the end of Batigol’s glittering career. Japan and South Korea represented one last chance for global domination for Batistuta and the Argentine was desperate to add a World Cup winners medal to his Scudetto title. Although Bati scored Argentina’s only goal in their win over Nigeria, La Albiceleste failed miserably in the tournament overall and couldn’t even make the second round. Our hero’s chance was gone.
In the years that followed, Batistuta’s career began to peter out. A loan spell at Inter Milan proved somewhat futile and in 2003, he joined Qatari side Al-Arabi. In his first season in Qatar he showed signs of the old, hot-shot Batigol, netting 25 in just 18 appearances. But to most it was obvious. Batistuta had put himself out to stud and in 2005, Batistuta finally retired.
Remarkably, Batistuta remains Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer, as, rather less remarkably, he also does for Fiorentina. His status as his nation’s top marksman may be under threat now the country has a new – and markedly smaller in stature – hero. But Batigol will always be remembered in Argentina, as he will in Florence, where in 1996 a life-size Batistuta statue – made from bronze – was erected.
As a family man, Batigol’s hard-working nature and clinical edge gained him so many followers – notably here in England, as many on these shores fell in love with the Calcio revolution. Among that select bunch inspired by Batistuta’s talents was me. I marvelled at the big-man’s skill, strength and finishing ability. He had a nose for goal and desire to see its net bulge. How revered he might be nowadays if he had accrued more titles and trophies over his long career is a question for the football oracles, but one thing should not be debated – Gabriel Batistuta was a legend of the game.