FootballSerie A

Serie A Icons: Gabriel Batistuta – “For over a decade it felt like he scored every time he touched the ball”

April 9, 2020

WHEN you saw him play, you just knew. Few sights in world football are as synonymous with the 1990s as Gabriel Batistuta in that iconic purple Fiorentina shirt, his mane of hair flowing behind him as he sprinted across the turf of the Stadio Artemio Franchi. When the Argentinian burst into action, fans could sense that something special was about to happen, and more often than not the run would end with the ball in the back of the net.

It could have gotten there from a ridiculously powerful volley, an unstoppable header or a perfectly executed chip, it didn’t matter, he was adept at them all and for over a decade it felt like he scored every time he touched the ball. The best defences ever assembled – whether it was the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi’s Juventus or even Manchester United’s treble-winning side of 1999 – were rendered irrelevant as Argentinian forward plundered goal after goal against them, disregarded their lofty reputations as he continued to write his own legend.

Batistuta’s story began with boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys, moving on to River Plate after just one year in the first team and then, unthinkably, joining bitter rivals Boca Juniors a mere twelve months later. He helped Oscar Tabarez’s side win the 1991 Clausura title before answering Argentina’s call for the Copa America that same summer, laying waste to all opposition as the tournament’s leading scored fired the Albiceleste to the trophy.

It was during that competition that Vittorio Cecchi Gori first saw him, and like everyone else he instantly recognised the greatness before him. In snapping up the 22-year-old, the Fiorentina Vice-President made the most impactful signing in the history of the club, one that would eventually usher in a bright new era under the Tuscan sun.

The new arrival would need very little time to settle in, netting 13 goals in his first season in Italy and 16 in his second, but he was powerless to prevent La Viola being relegated at the end of the 1993/94 campaign. If moving from River to Boca was rare, Batistuta’s decision to shun offers from across Europe and remain with Fiorentina in Serie B was unprecedented at the time, one of the most coveted hitmen in the world in the prime of his career actively choosing to play in the second tier.

Why? Simply put, because the man had fallen in love with Fiorentina. Offers came from the Bernabeu and Old Trafford but, as he later told reporters, Batistuta “would rather have won one title with a team like Fiorentina than ten titles with a team like Manchester United.”

With Claudio Ranieri arriving to steer the team back to the top flight, Batistuta once again was the leading scorer as Fiorentina finished five points clear at the top of Serie B and, when the new season began, the striker would quickly set about reminding defenders everywhere why he was the most dangerous man in Italian football.

Indeed, that 1994/95 campaign was arguably when he truly became “BatiGol,” netting in each of the first 11 games of the season to break a 32-year-old record and set a new benchmark that has yet to be beaten even today. He would end the season as Capocannoniere with a 26-goal haul, launching into a period of unforgettable quality that – in the six years after Fiorentina’s return to Serie A – saw him grab 151 goals in just 237 appearances.

Those figures include eight goals in the 1995/96 Coppa Italia campaign when Batistuta helped Fiorentina win silverware for the first time in two decades, bagging a hat-trick in the semifinals against Inter before adding one more in the final. His next outing in Viola colours was the Supercoppa Italiana the following August, lining up at San Siro against an AC Milan side containing the defensive prowess of Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Marcel Desailly.

It didn’t matter. By now, Batistuta was an undeniable force, capable of beating the best in the world either by finesse or by force and, on this occasion, he would deploy both to topple the mighty Rossoneri in their own stadium. The match was just 12 minutes old when he controlled a long ball forward and scooped it over Baresi’s head, turning both before leaving the legendary defender behind as he smashed the ball beyond Sebastiano Rossi and into the back of the net. Dejan Savićević would equalise, but as the clock wound down, a set piece 25 yards from goal offered Fiorentina a chance to win.

Batigol dispatched that with power and unerring accuracy to clinch yet another trophy, but he would not restrict his prowess to the peninsula. In the 1999/2000 Champions League campaign, one excellent strike would see off Arsenal at Wembley before a dominant performance against Manchester United saw the holders soundly beaten at Old Trafford.

Yet for all his wonderful ability, he couldn’t help Fiorentina overcome the traditional powerhouses of Serie A and so, reluctantly, he opted to leave Tuscany in the summer of 2000 and join AS Roma in hope of finally becoming a champion. He would do so of course, netting a team-high 20 goals as the Giallorossi lifted Lo Scudetto, Batistuta even netting against his beloved Viola, smashing in a wonderfully instinctive volley only to burst into tears when he remembered who he was playing against.

“At the end of the game I felt real joy because we gained three important points, but soon after I couldn’t help but feel really sad, thinking back to all those years spent with Fiorentina,” Batistuta said after the final whistle. “My family grew up in Florence. There I became what I am now, and those are things that cannot be forgotten. I hope that the Viola fans understand that. I think I paid my respects to them. The rest is for me to judge. I did not want to punish Fiorentina, but sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to.”

But even the staunchest of Fiorentina fans could not begrudge him his moment of glory, his talent finally enough to help his team claim the ultimate prize. He would go on to have a spell at Inter and two seasons in Qatar but, let’s be honest, whenever we think of Gabriel Omar Batistuta, it is in that beautiful Fiorentina purple, his hair blowing in the wind and another unwitting goalkeeper about to be beaten.

When you saw him play, you just knew.