In the 1990s one man turned goal scoring from a delicate but random art-form into a series of well-timed, bloody assassinations – and that man was the golden haired, hawk-eyed Gabriel Omar Batistuta. For those seduced by this particular golden age of Serie A, no single figure better represents the explosive dynamic flair of the era than the irrepressible, unforgettable Batigol . The great Argentine is, without doubt, one of the most talented and memorable foreign players ever to grace Italian football.
Batistuta was always a contrary figure, playing for both River Plate and Boca Juniors in his early years and – already garnering a reputation as a player of some class – he moved to Fiorentina in 1991. The man from Avellaneda topped the Serie A scoring charts in 1994/95 and registered 15 goals or more in eight of his 13 seasons in Italy. His astonishing overall Serie A record reads 184 in 318 – making him the eighth top scorer in its history and cementing his place as a netbusting legend. Add to that the striker’s brilliant international record of 56 in 78 for Argentina, and the picture of a footballer who possesses the highest quality begins to emerge. Quite simply, Batigol was the most deadly and sought after of forwards – ruthless in front of goal, displaying little or no mercy as he lashed in his trademark spectacular strikes.
In fact, there are few modern players who can compare to the Argentine. The contemporary world game tends to call for a more rounded talent. The high-profile forwards today – such as Wayne Rooney, Antonio Di Natale, Alessandro Del Piero, Didier Drogba – integrate themselves into general play far more effectively than Batistuta ever did. He was not so keen on picking the ball up from his left-back and running the length of the pitch, as the likes of Rooney seem so happy to do. Batistuta did most of his running when celebrating – which gave him plenty of exercise. Perhaps former Viola man Luca Toni is one modern day scorer who offers a similarly aggressive goal threat as Batistuta, but without quite the same ability to take a single chance when it presented itself. His economy of effort was awe-inspiring – springing into life at just the right moment, catching entire teams on the back foot with an almost preternatural sense of timing.
What so many top class defenders found so hard to swallow when playing against Batistuta was the fact that for 89 minutes he could be near invisible. He did not have blistering pace and could be frustrated out of a game for long periods. But there are few strikers – of any era, who had the same opportunistic knack as Batigol (the uncanny Pippo Inzaghi aside). No better was this displayed than the Champions League match against Arsenal, at Highbury in 1999.
Until the 74th minute the game was heading for rather listless draw, as Batistuta picked up the ball on the edge of the 18-yard box, skinned Nigel Winterburn and rifled the ball over David Seaman from the most unlikely of angles. Fiorentina went on to score another, but it was the dispiriting vision of this wonder goal that destroyed Arsenal’s morale and dumped them out of the competition. Like so many teams before them, the Gunners were left wondering, “Where the hell did THAT come from?”
Of course Batigol’s legend will always belong to la Viola – the player sealing his god-like reputation with the fans by remaining loyal to the club when they sunk into Serie B in 1993. With offers coming in from teams like Inter and Manchester United, Batistuta stood tall and steered the Florentine giants back to Serie A with 16 goals in 26 second division appearances. It’s hard to see Drogba remaining at Stamford Bridge or Cristiano Ronaldo remaining at Old Trafford should next season throw up fixtures against Barnsley or Plymouth.
On returning to the top flight, the Argentine helped propel la Viola to the upper reaches of the table, pulling around him with gravitational force an incredible squad, bubbling with industry and ingenuity. Players such as Francesco Toldo, Manuel Rui Costa, Francesco Baino, Angelo Di Livio, Anselmo Robbiati and Luis Oliveira set the Stadio Artemi Franchi alight. They were never the most solid of teams but certainly one of the most creative and exciting of the 1990s. He brought the club their first trophies in years in 1995/96 – lifting both the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italia (as well as reaching the semi finals of the UEFA Cup). This achievement is not a modest one, akin perhaps to a team such as West Ham winning the domestic double.
The sheer range of goals Batistuta scored to fire Fiorentina to success was remarkable. Many of which he owed to the unparalleled selflessness of Rui Costa and a good number he simply thwacked from 25-yards or more. Deft with both feet and deadly in the air, reviewing his goal haul is a mind-blowing task. Suffice to say, his unerring ability to catch a defender in a split-second of uncertainty (within a league at the height of its defensive powers) was spell-binding. A moment of imbalance or indecision and he would pounce like a ravenous predator who’s belly could be swelled only by the rippling of the net. There was no-one better at sending home the opposition’s fans with nothing in their hearts but unwanted admiration for the other team.
What’s more, it’s hard to recall another striker scoring so many of his goals from such distance so consistently. Christian Vieri, at his very best, could perhaps make a case for himself, but for nowhere near as long could he sustain Batigol’s venomous firing. And Vieri has nothing like the Argentine’s subtlety. So frightened of his lethal power, many a goalkeeper were fooled into advancing one step too far, finding himself stranded, subjected to a trademark Batistuta lob. Francesco Totti is another master of the chip, but Gabriel got there first, and far more often.
Although he appeared joyous on the field – rat-tat-tatting his machine gun celebration with inimitable glee – he was never satisfied with merely scoring and he seemed aware that his greatest ambitions could never be fulfilled with the club he adored. Batistuta displayed the consistency and performance of a winner, apparently destined to spend his career with a club incapable of sustaining a genuine challenge for the Scudetto.
However, in 2000 Batigol finally departed la Viola and headed for Fabio Capello’s Roma in search of the league title. So great was the love for their idol, the fans showed a rare sense of understanding and waved him a tearful farewell. Unlike the sense of abandonment they expressed through protest when Roberto Baggio departed, the tifosi appreciated that Gabriel had given them his very best years, with pleasure. They knew that he had to follow his dreams, and, after all, he had realised so many of theirs – restoring their cherished club beyond mediocrity and back amongst the Serie A’s chief protagonists.
Although Batigol never fully recreated the magic he showed at Fiorentina, he scored a series of vital goals for Roma and collected the Scudetto in 2000/01 – netting 20 times in 26 league appearances. Of course, Capello’s team lacked the mazy unpredictability of la Viola but their functional sense of direction complimented Batistuta just as well and he discovered in Totti and Montella, striking partners that suited his natural game superbly.
Of course, Batistuta scored one of the most important goals in the club’s history. Against Parma, on the final day of the 2000/01 season, Roma needed a win to edge out Juventus for the title. Totti put the team ahead after a slick team move, shortly followed by Batistuta’s first telling contribution – bursting through on goal, drawing a save from the keeper, from which Montella tapped home into an empty net. But it was Batigol’s strike, to make it 3-0 that sealed the title and put Parma to bed. It was the goal that brought celebration from even the most wary and superstitious of Giallorossi fans. With a characteristically crisp take on the edge of the box, the Argentine turned two defenders before slipping the ball home with his left foot. For him, it was a run-of-the-mill finish but for Roma, it will go down in history. The energy in the stadium was amazing, the whole place on fire as their ambition finally fused with a giddying rush of actuality. And, at long last, Gabriel’s goals earned him the honours he so richly deserved.
Although his latter years were something of a frustration – finding nothing but injury and inconsistency in Rome and an absurd loan spell honourably endured at the Nerazzurri. His final, account-padding move to Al-Arabi in Qatar saw out the last moments of an incredible career in relative (but plush) obscurity. In fact, he scored a wondrous 25 goals in just 18 starts – capping his career as prolifically as it had begun.
Never a man easily assuaged, in recent years Batistuta has revealed that dissatisfaction helped drive him on as a player: “When I was playing football I never enjoyed it that much, I was never happy … if I scored two goals, I wanted a third, I always wanted more. Now it’s all over I can look back with satisfaction, but I never felt that way when I was playing.”
There are not many images that warmed the hearts of Serie A fans as thoroughly as that of ‘the Angel Gabriel,’ wheeling away from goal in wild-eyed joy, swamped by his adoring teammates, bathing in the uncontained roar of the crowd. Luckily for us he scored so many goals that we got to see it so often.
Past Lessons in Calcio