Saturday morning television when I was growing up was all about ‘Live and Kicking’ for most kids, however my morning viewing consisted of watching James Richardson aka ‘that baldy guy’, sitting outside a cafe in Italy reading the paper while discussing that week’s Serie A headlines. ‘Football Italia’ was Channel 4’s first venture into Italian football, which came about due to a lack of live football on terrestrial TV every Sunday, rather than the glorious football the Italian league was producing.
That era of Italian football had many great players playing some of the best football in Europe at the time, but for me the one player that inspired and entertained more than most, was the great Gabriel Batistuta. His raw power, confidence to shoot from long range, and dominance of any defence standing in his way, made him a hero in my eyes as a kid.
Known as ‘Batigol’ for his goal scoring for both club and country, Batistuta came from humble beginnings in a small town outside of Buenos Aires. As a teenager Bati didn’t aspire to be a footballer, instead he wanted to concentrate on his studies. However when Champions of Argentina, Newell Old Boys, scouted his talents and offered him the chance to join them, while continuing with his education, Gabriel took the chance and his first steps into professional football.
Batistuta quickly became Newell’s star player and started to attract the attention of the major Argentine clubs. Bati is a life long Boca Juniors fan, however in 1989 he joined Boca’s archrivals River Plate. His career stalled at River due to tension with the management team, and because of this he made only 7 appearances for the club. Eager to leave, Batistuta left River for his boyhood team and rivals Boca, which is like going from Rangers to Celtic, or Barcelona to Real Madrid in terms of rivalry.
In only two seasons at Boca, Batistuta became a hero to the club’s fans. Despite having a slow start to his Boca career, once Gabriel got a run in the team he showed his true goal scoring talents. In 1991 Boca finished top of the ‘Torneo Clausera’ with Bati finishing top goal scorer, however despite this Newell’s Old Boys beat them in the championship final.
Due to his performance for Argentina in the 1991 Copa America, Batistuta signed for Italian club Fiorentina. It was when he played for Fiorentina that Bati became one of my favorite footballers of all time.
In his first season for Fiorentina, he scored 13 goals in 27 appearances helping the club to 12th place in the league. The next season saw tragedy at the club with the death of the president Mario Cecchi Gori. This had a deep impact on the club and the team, and as a result Fiorentina were relegated to Serie B despite Bati improving his season’s tally with a total of 16 league goals.
At this stage of his career he had become a fans favorite at La Viola and was widely regarded as one of the best strikers in Europe. With Fiorentina now no longer in Italy’s top flight, offers from the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United began to arrive; this however was when Bati showed his true character as a man. Bati ignored the lure of titles and riches, and vowed to stay with Fiorentina and help the club return to Serie A.
With Claudio Ranieri as manager, La Viola were the superior team in Serie B finishing the campaign as champions and achieving promotion back to the top league in Italy. He again scored 16 league goals, and continued to showcase his talents.
In 1994 Bati played in his first ever World Cup. Argentina became strong contenders to win the tournament with the likes of himself and Diego Maradona in the team. In their first game of the tournament against Greece, Bati scored a hat trick as Argentina won 4-0. The infamous Maradona doping scandal affected the team’s performance at the finals, and they were eventually knocked out in the next round by Romania.
Fiorentina’s first season back in Serie A was Bati’s highest scoring season ever with 26 league goals, and he also broke Ezio Pascutti’s record by scoring in each of the first 11 league games. Over the next 4 seasons at Fiorentina, Bati showed why he was one of the greatest of all time, playing the best football of this career and maintaining his high tally of goal scoring.
France ’98 was my first memorable World Cup, and Bati scored a hat trick in Argentina’s group game with Jamaica, this made him the only player to have scored two hat tricks at two different world cups. Despite helping Argentina to defeat England (thanks to David Batty), the team was knocked out by Holland in the quarter finals.
Batistuta continued to play for his beloved Fiorentina until 2000 where he left for a fee of more than £20 million to join Roma in a chase of his first Italian title. With 20 league goals in 28 appearances Bati led Roma to their first title since 1983.
At the age of 33, the 2002 World Cup was his last chance to win the prestigious trophy. Although Bati scored the only goal in Argentina’s opening game against Nigeria, they failed to reach the second round and Bati’s dream of winning a World Cup was over.
In the years that followed, Batistuta had an unsuccessful loan at Inter Milan before playing out his retirement years in Qatar. Although I personally find it annoying when players of such high class and achievement follow the money and play out in Qatar, Bati made it work for him. In his first season for Al Arabi he scored 25 goals in 18 appearances and broke the league goal scoring record.
Batistuta is still the all time top goal scorer for both Argentina and Fiorentina. His international record is astounding with 81 goals in 105 appearances.
Believe it or not Bati now lives back in his homeland, where he runs his own farming/construction company, (didn’t expect that myself).
For me Gabriel Batistuta was an icon, he was the big, powerful striker that couldn’t stop scoring. Every Saturday morning I watched him on Gazzetta and wanted to do what he could do, sadly however I wasn’t blessed with anything like the same natural talent for football as he was.
The one thing that holds Batistuta back when talking about the greatest ever players is his lack of major titles or medals. However Batistuta was one of the most prolific strikers in Europe despite Fiorentina not being one of Italy’s greatest teams. His era of Italian football and world football was for many the greatest yet and for this reason Batigol must be regarded as not only a legend, but also one of the greatest ever.
By Louis McCaffrey. You can follow Louis on Twitter @McCaffrey14.