The Rise of BatiGoal

Are we about to witness the emergence of a new talent at this COPA? Can any greenhorn use this stage as a springboard for a magnificent career like BatiGoal[1] ? In Goalden Times’ series on COPA immortals,it is now  Debjan Sengupta’s turn to churn out a fascinating tale. You can read the other stories of the ‘Copa America’ series here. This article has been published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.

Before 1991’s Copa America, Gabriel Omar Batistuta was an almost unheard-of name in the international football circuit. Born to a slaughterhouse worker and a school teacher, the young Argentine preferred basketball to football as a teenager. However, the 1978 World Cup triumph of Argentina — especially the heroics of Mario Kempes — enthralled the boy from Santa Fe. Inspired by Argentina’s brilliant performance, Batistuta took up football and went on to become Argentina’s leading goal scorer of all times.

It all started with the Copa America of 1991.

After Argentina’s World Cup Final loss to Germany in 1990, Diego Maradona announced that the World Cup had been his last tournament playing for Argentina. Coach Carlos Bilardo resigned as well, and Argentina suddenly found themselves at the fag end of their “golden era” in 1991.

As nations geared up to compete for the fabled continental championship, Argentina headed into the tournament not only without their erstwhile captain and talisman, but also with a new coach. The new coach had chosen a young squad, which consisted of only eight capped Internationals (four of whom had played in the 1990 World Cup) and 16 young uncapped players who were playing well at the domestic level.

In 1988—just three years before the tournament—Gabriel Batistuta was playing for a local team that defeated Newell’s Old Boys in the Provincial Championship. His two goals drew the attention of the opposition scouts and he signed for them that year itself. In his debut season, he faced the challenges of being away from home and his family. His weight increased and slowed him down. In the end, he was loaned out to a smaller club. The following year, he made the leap to one of Argentina’s biggest clubs—River Plate. He found initial success with them, but was lost his place in the team in the middle of the season after a fight with coach Daniel Passarella.

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Batistuta celebrates a goal for Boca in 19900/91

He was not given many chances to prove himself, and his time with River Plate was tumultuous. He was on the move next year again—this time to River Plate’s arch rivals Boca Juniors. Initially, he struggled to find his feet as he was played out of position. However, he was put in the centre of the attack by Oscar Taberaz, and repaid that faith by becoming the league’s top scorer that season, with 13 goals.

His international debut also came in the same year against Brazil, and his second game was the opening game of Copa America. After changing three clubs in three years and a solitary stellar season, wearing the number nine shirt and leading the attack line so soon had not been in the striker’s plan.

On top of that, Argentina had not won the Copa America since its last triumph in 1959 on home soil. Hopes for glory were slim but not non-existent. These hopes were mainly fuelled by Sergio Goycochea in goal, Oscar Ruggeri in defence, Diego Simeone in midfield, and the nous of Claudio Caniggia in attack. The team had enough talent to rattle their opponents, but were sorely missing someone with firepower to lead from the front.  There was no one with the killer talent to score goals from half chances, and no one who could make a difference in the matches—day in and day out. It was in this scenario that “El Angel Gabriel” burst onto the scene with his waving flocks of blond hair. Needless to say, he took the world by storm. The 1991 Copa America will always be remembered for the rise of Gabriel Batistuta.

The 35rd edition of the Copa America (previously known as the South American Championship) was hosted by Chile that year. It was the last time that the tournament was being played by nations only belonging to the continent of South America. Ten teams were placed into two groups of five. The top two teams from each group would advance into the final round.

Argentina was thrown into a group comprising Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. La Albiceleste were expected to progress, but the air of certainty was lacking. The nation was still coming to terms with the new era in its football history.

In their first game, Argentina squared off against Venezuela—the only CONMEBOL side that had never played in the World Cup. 10,000 people gathered in Estadio Nacional de Chile that day to witness the football prowess of this new Argentina. After some initial exchanges and a couple of teasing balls in the Venezuelan box, it took Argentina only 28 minutes to break the dead lock.

A lofted free kick into the Venezuelan box by no.10 Diego Simeone was met by Ruggeri, who headed it across the face of the goal for Claudio Caniggia. But it was Gabriel Batistuta who sneaked in behind the defence line to hammer the loose ball home for the lead. With the pressure off their back and rain pouring down the pitch, Argentina dished out a fine display of one-touch based, attacking, and exciting football. Caniggia bagged the second goal with a header, while Batistuta got on the score sheet again as he rifled home a penalty—Argentina’s third goal for the night. After a 3-0 win in their first game, Argentina suddenly had a new star in its midst.

In the second group game, the team came up against hosts and favourites Chile. Led by then Sevilla player Ivan Zamorano, the Chileans were a formidable and gritty opponent in their own right.

Ahead of the clash with Argentina, Chile had won their group games against Venezuela (2-0) and Peru (4-2) .Heading into the game on the back of consecutive victories, the Chileans played free flowing football with pride and grit, matching their Argentine rivals blow by blow. The game seemed to be heading towards a stalemate.

Then, Batistuta struck. Again.

In an era where goalkeepers were still allowed to pick up back passes, Goycochea picked up a back pass and thumped it forward with a long kick in the 80th minute.

The high ball was controlled by Caniggia, who put it into the path of the onrushing Batistuta, who romped forward with intent, beating the centre half with sheer pace and cutting inside him. With the centre back wrong footed and the defenders left far behind, he wrapped his right foot around the ball to place a beautiful finish in the far post—beyond the reach of Patricio Toledo, the onrushing goalkeeper.

As a jubilant Gabriel Batistuta ran around the Estadio Nacional, celebrating his goal with euphoric joy, the Chilean supporters fell silent. Once again, “El Angel Gabriel” had changed the entire match with his sheer appetite for goals. The final score read Argentina 1 – Chile 0.

Batistuta against Chile in action during Copa 1991
Batistuta against Chile in action during Copa 1991

Batistuta found the net yet again in the third group game against Paraguay. Argentina won the match 4–1, which also saw Diego Simeone, Leonardo Astrada, and Caniggia feature on the score sheet. Batistuta led the attack with intelligence and skill. It took him only 40 minutes to score his fourth goal in three matches.

Paraguay had Jose Luis Chilavert—a stalwart among goal keepers—and yet Batistuta fooled him and finished at his near post with aplomb. A back heel by Leonardo Rodriguez (who would be honoured as the best player in that tournament) set up Gabriel Batistuta in the centre of the 18-yard box with only the defender and Chilavert between him and the goal. He turned the defender outside to get into a shooting position and struck the ball with power on his outstep, curling it away from the diving Chilavert.

Suddenly, Argentinians had started dreaming of winning this tournament.

With progression to the next round guaranteed, coach Basile tried out the players who had not appeared so far in the tournament during their match against Peru. The new players, in turn, repaid their manager’s faith with a 3–2 win over their opponents.

Argentina finished the group in pole position with four wins in as many games, scoring eleven and conceding only three goals.

After topping the group, Argentina was pitted against Chile, Brazil, and Colombia in the final group stage. No one had really thought that Argentina would play such enchanting football—let alone progress so far in the tournament.

First up were the eternal rival, Brazil.

The Selecao had been weakened since the days of Socrates, Eder, Zico and Falcao—a generation widely regarded as one of the best ever to grace the game. However, they still remained a force to be reckoned with.

On 17 July, 44,005 fans packed into the Estadio Nacional to see this world-famous rivalry in action—both teams enthralling the football world with their brand of fluid and attacking football.

Argentina took the lead in the first minute. Young midfielder Dario Franco, who was uncapped before the tournament, scored from a corner from the right wing with a header. Brazil’s inability to defend well against set pieces had always been a point of concern for the team, and the same blunder cost them dearly in the final round of 1991’s Copa America. However, four minutes after that goal Branco—the free kick specialist left back and the captain of Brazil—thundered home a free kick from 35–40 yards out to tie the game.

Dario Franco would go on to score again to make the score 2-1, followed by another goal from Batistuta to make it 3–1.

Gabriel Batistuta had started drifting into the space between the left back and the centre back, but when the ball was played in, he changed his direction to run in between the two centre backs and headed the ball to loop it over the keeper into the far corner. Although Joao Paulo scored in the 52nd minute to pull the game back to 3–2, the Argentinians held on for a win.

In a match marred by violent fouls, deliberate kicking, and hacking, “El Angel Gabriel” gave the performance of his lifetime. He virtually covered every blade of grass, occasionally falling back to defend and throwing himself into tackles and last-ditch challenges. He fought for every ball, won it, held it up, and spread the play wide. In a match which the player himself remembers as one “of his best”, Batistuta transcended the notion of an out-and-out striker—leading the attack intelligently, helping out the defence, carrying the ball forward, and running down the clock.

And suddenly, Argentina were two games away from winning their first continental glory in 32 years.

Their next group game ended in a 0–0 draw with Chile. This was the only game in the tournament in which Batistuta played, but did not manage to score.

On the 21st of July, in front of 45,104 spectators, Argentina played Colombia in the final group fixture, knowing that a victory would certainly give them the fabled Copa America trophy. Brazil led the group with one loss and two wins and stood at four points from three games, with a goal difference of +3. On the other hand, Argentina had one win and one draw and stood at three points from two games, with a goal difference of +1. A draw could see Argentina equalize on points, but Brazil would edge out on goal difference.

Colombia had Rene Higuita, Andres Escobar, and Carlos Valderrama in their roster. But it was not their year. After 11 minutes, Argentina were leading by 1–0. Leonardo Rodriguez had found space to play a through ball in the channel between the right back and the centre back for Fabian Basualdo. The midfielder met the ball first time to send a deep cross to the back post. The ball was met by the head of Diego Simeone, who headed the ball downwards with power. Somehow, it went straight towards goalkeeper Rene Higuita. However, the eccentric keeper failed to keep the ball out, and it travelled securely into the back of the net.

Leonardo Rodriguez followed this up by setting up another goal with a beautiful assist just moments later. He received the ball, drew the defenders towards him for a final tackle, and played the ball over the head of the defence to the right. The ball landed near Batistuta.

The Angel received it.

He created space for himself with a deft touch, taking the ball away from the centre back and then unleashed a lethal out-swinging shot beyond the reach of goalkeeper Rene Higuita. His sixth  goal in five matches in the tournament meant that Argentina was leading 2–0.

The picture of curly blond haired Batistuta waving his arm in a circular fashion and running down to the touchline is still an iconic moment.

Colombia managed to score a goal in the 70th minute, courtesy of a defensive lapse, but the game finished in favour of the Argentina. It was the country’s first continental honour in 32 years.

Bati with Copa triumph
Bati with Copa triumph

The nation reinstated the philosophy of teamwork in the beautiful game, and Gabriel Batistuta earned himself a move to Florence after his exploits in the tournament caught the eye of Vittorio Cecchi Gori, then the Vice President of Fiorentina. Gori immediately signed the new international star to bolster his attack.

And they say, the Viola still sing songs of El Angel Gabriel in Stadio Artemio Franchi today.

Gabriel Batistuta would go on to appear in two more editions of Copa America. In 1993, as Argentina retained their crown and collected their 14th title, Batistuta bagged the Silver Boot with three goals. Two of these came in the final against Mexico. In 1995’s tournament, he won the golden boot again with four goals. However, Argentina crashed out to eventual runners up Brazil in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals.

With 13 goals in Copa America, Gabriel Batistuta is placed in the 5th position amongst the all-time highest scorers. His goals and his football prowess lit up all the three editions of the tournament that he had featured in.

But it was his journey from a non-entity to a world-famous football star that made his 1991 triumph so special. His incredible transition from a young premier division player to the goal machine for the national team went on to capture the imagination of an entire generation.

His story and his legend live on in Argentina till today.

[1] Gabriel Omar Batistuta nicknamed Batigol as well as El Ángel Gabriel.