There’s a term used in the football world – “natural finisher” – and it is generally reserved for strikers such as Thierry Henry, the original Ronaldo, Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo, and the like. Add to that list Mr Gabriel Batistuta. The Argentine sensation set our tv screens alight, mainly in the 90s, when widespread football coverage was becoming the norm. Whether you watched live Serie A on a Sunday or the highlights on a Monday night, Batigol was sure to have played a prominent part in what you were viewing.
Benvenuto in Italia
Arriving in Italy in 1991, Batistuta had spent three seasons as a professional in the Argentinian league. Those years were spread out, one each at Newell’s Old Boys, River Plate, and Boca Juniors. He had made 92 appearances, scoring 31 goals, all by the time he was just 22.
In the 1991 Copa America finals in Chile, Batistuta finished as the tournament’s top scorer with 6 goals in 6 games. He helped a young Argentine squad – missing Diego Maradona who had received a worldwide ban for drug use – on their way to lift the trophy. This was the tournament that propelled Batistuta onto the world stage. In Maradona’s absence, the young Batigol had performed when his team needed him most, outshining the then 24-year-old Claudio Caniggia, to win the heart of a nation.
As with many young South American footballers, the Copa America placed Batistuta firmly in the shop window for European football clubs. Fiorentina were the first to pounce and he moved to Florence, Italy, with his wife, Irina Fernandez (married one year at this stage) for the next chapter of his career.
With 14 goals in 30 appearances in all competitions that first season, it’s clear to see that Batistuta hit the ground running in Italian football as Fiorentina finished in 12th position.
Down but back up
In 1992/93, he managed 16 league goals in 32 games but could not stop Fiorentina from being relegated to Serie B. They were straight back up, however, after winning the second-tier title the following season. Batistuta scored 16 league goals again, but this time it took him just 26 appearances.
After Fiorentina’s relegation in 1993, Batistuta yet again led Argentina to Copa America glory in Ecuador. This time he only managed three goals but two of those were in the 2-1 victory over Mexico in the final. By this stage, Batistuta was virtually a god to the Argentinian football community.
The following summer, at USA ‘94, Argentina disappointed. The Copa America champions were knocked out by Romania in the last sixteen, losing 3-2. Batistuta scored a penalty in the first half, one of his four goals in the tournament, but a Gheorghe Hagi-inspired Romanian team just proved too strong.
Batigol was now 25 years old and upon promotion back to Serie A he flourished. He was the top scorer for the 1994/95 season, with 26 league goals in 32 games as Fiorentina finished 10th. His closest competitor for the Golden Boot that season was another Argentine, Abel Balbo, who was plying his trade at Roma. Balbo was often Batistuta’s strike partner for the national team.
Between 1995 and when he left Fiorentina in 2000, Batistuta never scored less than 13 league goals in a season, with the most being 23 in his final season. Unfortunately, he never managed to bring a Scudetto to Florence. 3rd was the highest Fiorentina finished while Batistuta was there, in 1998/99.
He had, however, brought silverware in the form of the 1996 Coppa Italia. It was Fiorentina’s first Coppa title for 21 years. Batistuta scored a goal in each leg as Fiorentina beat Atalanta 3-0 on aggregate in that season’s final. He had managed an excellent 8 goals in 8 cup games.
For Argentina, the 1995 Copa America had been a disappointment. Batistuta managed to win a share of the Golden Boot with Luis Garcia of Mexico, both on four goals. Yet, Argentina went out to Brazil in an entertaining quarter-final showdown.
Batistuta missed out on the 1997 Copa America tournament and much of the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup in France due to a falling out with the team coach, Daniel Passarella. He was included in the squad for the finals in France, though. With five goals, he was just one behind the tournament’s top scorer, Croatia’s Davor Suker, as Argentina fell at the quarter-final stage to a highly impressive Dutch team.
In the summer of 2000, Batistuta was signed by AS Roma for a fee equating to €36.2 million. This amount is still the highest transfer ever for a player over 30 – he was now 31.
Amazingly, Roma won the Scudetto in Batistuta’s first season there. It was the club’s first Scudetto since 1983 and they haven’t won one since, either. They pipped Juventus to the title by two points with Batistuta “chipping in” with 20 league goals. The league’s top scorer was another young, Argentinian – Hernan Crespo. The 25-year-old Crespo bagged 26 league goals for Lazio that season after signing from Parma for a then world-record fee of £35 million (sterling).
Over the next one and a half seasons, Batistuta would only score another 10 goals for Roma. A loan move to Internazionale followed but two goals in his twelve appearances for the Milan side was a poor return considering Batigol’s previous standard.
At the age of 33, Batistuta was back in the Argentina squad for their appearance at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. But they underperformed and were eliminated at the group stages, finishing 3rd behind Sweden and England, and just above Nigeria. Batistuta had managed one goal in the three group games. Argentina only scored two in total.
It was only right that Batistuta’s incredible international career would draw to a close on the biggest stage of all in 2002. He never played for his country again after that World Cup and finished with 56 goals in 78 international games. Messi has since overtaken Batistuta’s goals record but it must be pointed out that he has over 120 caps for Argentina. Batistuta’s record of a goal every 126 minutes for Argentina is the most prolific any striker has managed for La Albiceleste.
Batigol had time for one more club in his career. An $8 million move took him to Al-Arabi in the Qatar Stars League. He scored 25 goals in 18 league games in his one full season, beating the previous top scorer record for a season. Brazilian, Clemerson, did manage to beat Batistuta’s record with 27 goals in the 2007/08 season.
In an unexpected turn, Gabriel Batistuta took to play Polo for some years (yes, the sport on the horse) when he officially retired from football in 2005 after his spell in Qatar. The choice of Polo as his new sport makes sense when considering the sad revelation that Batigol had asked doctors to amputate his legs and just “cut them both off, like Pistorius” due to the pain he faced every day after retirement.
This was the disappointing legacy that football had left him with – poor mobility and a very serious ankle issue. Years of “assistance” of cortisone injections as he played through the pain barrier for his teams has left Batistuta in serious pain. Thankfully, after some emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on the cartilage and tendons in his ankles it has improved somewhat. But it’s by no means easy for the man who was once one of the most feared strikers on the planet.