Gabriel Batistuta – Fiorentina Icon, Calcio Legend
As a first venture into the world of football writing, I have decided to start with a subject and, more specifically, a player who inspired my love of Italian football. Gabriel Batistuta, one of the great forwards of his or any other generation. His legendary status in Florence is well known but equally, his is a reputation that has rightly spread much further than Tuscany.
It was recently the twentieth anniversary of Batigol’s arrival in Italy upon signing for Fiorentina. What better time to highlight a career and a legacy that can genuinely be described as phenomenal?
It has often been said that no player is bigger than their team. While this remains true, rarely has a player come to symbolise their club in the same way that Batistuta defined Fiorentina during nine seasons from 1991 to 2000. As much as his performances, it was the quality of the man that inspired devotion and respect from the fans on the Curva Fiesole. When Fiorentina were relegated in 1993, Batistuta remained loyal to the club who had brought him to Italy despite being the subject of interest from many of the bigger teams in the peninsula. Batigol’s faith in the club was not misplaced and Fiorentina swiftly returned to the top division. This was to become the period when Batistuta confirmed himself as one of the all-time Serie A greats.
Any striker is judged on one criterion – his goal scoring record. Batistuta’s record stands up to any scrutiny and, indeed, exceeds what most other mortals could only dream of. He is among the Top Ten All Time leading goalscorers in Serie A history with a record of 184 goals in 318 matches. This equals a goal approximately every 1.7 matches – a wonderful achievement and only really bettered by the legendary Gunnar Nordahl of AC Milan & Roma, who scored a goal approximately every 1.3 games – an almost unbelievable return. Batistuta’s goalscoring exploits are even more impressive when you consider that for the majority of his career he was not playing for one of the very top teams in the league. Fiorentina challenged for the title on a couple of occasions in the 1990’s but ultimately never finished higher than third in the 1998-99 season.
That season is one that highlighted how dependant la Viola were on Batistuta. Fiorentina made a wonderful start to the campaign and maintained this momentum up until a pivotal clash with their closest challengers AC Milan in game week 20. The game was evenly poised until Batigol pulled up with a serious hamstring injury – he was substituted and the game finished scoreless. The damage to Fiorentina’s title challenge was irreparable however; Batistuta was out for over a month and the hopes of a Fiorentina title for the first time since 1969 were dashed by the inability of the team to win without him. A source of profound regret to Fiorentina fans the world over. Batistuta still managed to finish the season with 26 league goals – a testament to his, if not the team’s, absolute class.
Of course, it is not only with Fiorentina that Batistuta made his mark. After long years of service to la Viola with only a Coppa Italia and Super Coppa to show for it, Batistuta moved to Roma in 2000 in an effort to win that elusive Scudetto under Fabio Capello. It was to be a great move for both parties – in his debut season Batistuta scored 20 goals as Roma won their first title since 1983 and Batigol won his first Scudetto. Coincidence? The simple answer is ‘No’. Batistuta was exactly what Roma needed – Capello recognised this and was duly rewarded. Given a solid backing cast, Batistuta had the talent to carry a team to glory. Roma could give him this which, unfortunately, Fiorentina, at the time, could not. I cannot speak for all Viola fans on this but the only way I could have been happier for Batigol was if he had won the title in the purple shirt. There could be no resentment towards the man who had given so much to the Gigliati. These feelings were encapsulated by his first goal for Roma against Fiorentina – while it was painful to watch, one could only admire the fearsome power, perfect technique and sublime instincts displayed.
On the international stage too, Batigol distinguished himself. His record of 56 goals in 78 games for Argentina makes him their all-time leading goalscorer. He also became the first player to score hat-tricks at two different World Cups (against Greece in 1994 and Jamaica in 1998). His goals for Argentina highlighted what a fine finisher and even free kick taker he was. While Batistuta’s goals helped Argentina to Copa America victory in 1991 and 1993, success on the biggest stage of the World Cup eluded him and La Selección. Nevertheless, Batigol was admired by football fans the world over. He was perhaps once again unlucky that, as with Fiorentina, he was playing with a team that all too often flattered to deceive.
If one were to review Batistuta’s career based on major titles won it could be argued that he under-achieved – 1 Serie A title, 2 Copa Italias, 2 Copa Americas. Little enough compared with a Zlatan Ibrahimovic and yet which of these players will be remembered longest? I can mention Fiorentina to even those who have rarely, if ever, watched Italian football and they will immediately say, “Batistuta”. They will remember his goals against Manchester United, Barcelona and Arsenal in the Champions League. They will know of his near limitless virtuosity – goals scored with rightfoot, leftfoot, and header; Bullet-like free kicks from 5 yards or from 35 yards; a presence on the field that is possessed by very few players from any era of the game; a player who could play for so many years and be universally respected by all football fans regardless of what team they follow. These are all the things that define Batistuta for so many.
For Fiorentina fans like me, however, it is his time in Florence that we remember best. The goals, the years of loyal service he gave us and the mutual respect between him and the fans made him a legend even while he still played for the club. How many other players have a life-size bronze statue of themselves commissioned by the fans to celebrate beside after scoring a goal?
Despite his high profile, he has always remained a private, family man – he has always carried himself with dignity and class on and off the field. Some of today’s top footballers could learn much from his example. He could also teach them something about staying true to a club. One of my favourite quotes from the great man is when he was profiled for a programme called “Football’s Greatest”.
He was asked by the reporter about why he had never signed for Manchester United at the height of his career despite repeated interest from Alex Ferguson. Did he regret this decision now? Batistuta paused briefly before answering and said, “I would rather have won one title with a team like Fiorentina than ten titles with a team like Manchester United”. Enough said. Grazie Batigol – hero, legend, genius.