Fourteen years after his retirement and Gabriel Batistuta’s legacy is such that he is regarded by many a wise sage as Argentina’s third greatest ever player after Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Although supporters of such luminaries as Osvaldo Ardiles and Hernan Crespo may disagree, there is a good case to be made for such a title to be bestowed upon the man who in a fifteen-year career amassed more than four hundred competitive appearances for seven clubs. This is in addition to more than three-quarters of a century of caps for his country.
Known equally for his flowing locks as well as his hard running game, Batistuta made his debut for Newell’s Old Boys in 1988 at the age of nineteen where he had come through the ranks. Developing under future national coach, Marcelo Bielsa, Batistuta played one season at Newell’s Old Boys before being transferred to River Plate, and then a year later onto Boca Juniors.
His spells at clubs in his own country lasted but a solitary season each time before he moved on. Again, in 1991 he was on the transfer trail, but this time it was overseas he headed and it was at Fiorentina that Batistuta became a household name. Staying for almost ten seasons, Batistuta would go onto score a remarkable 168 goals in 269 appearances and become one of the game’s hottest properties.
Fiorentina and Gabriel Batistuta seemed made for each other, and theirs was a love affair that bloomed and blossomed over the better part of a decade. However, despite a solid start to his career at Fiorentina, Batistuta found himself appearing in a relegation-threatened team in his second season. The sixteen goals he scored were not sufficient to lead the side away from the drop zone, and in 1993 Fiorentina were relegated.
By this time, Batistuta was an Argentine international, having made his debut in 1991. In both 1991 and 1993, Batistuta helped his country win the Copa America. Indeed, in 1993 he scored both goals in the final in a 2-1 win over Mexico.
With the World Cup in the USA looming in 1994, Batistuta took the risky decision to stay with Fiorentina in Serie B. His calculated gamble paid dividends as the club bounced back to the top flight at the first time of asking.
Following a reasonably disappointing World Cup when Argentina lost to Romania in the last sixteen, Batistuta and Fiorentina started the 1994-95 season impressively. Playing as an out-and-out striker under the management of Claudio Ranieri, Batistuta ended the season as top scorer in Serie A with twenty-six goals.
The following season saw silverware as Fiorentina secured the Coppa Italia with Batistuta scoring in both legs of the final against Atalanta. Three successive seasons of scoring twenty league goals or more followed and Batistuta also made his bow in the European Champions League as Fiorentina finished third in Serie A in 1998-99.
Impressive strikes against both Arsenal and Manchester United (home and away) in the Champions League of 1999-2000 helped further cement Batistuta’s profile in the modern game, and at the end of that season, he became the most expensive thirty-plus player in the world when he was transferred to AS Roma for seventy billion lire.
Yet Batistuta was heartbroken to have left the club where he had spent so long. Acknowledging that he was leaving for footballing reasons only, Batistuta left on the best of terms and remained a hero in the eyes of the Fiorentina supporters.
After a number of years attempting and failing to win the Scudetto with Fiorentina, Batistuta succeeded at the first attempt with Roma in 2000-01. In a memorable match against Fiorentina, he scored against his old club and not only refused to celebrate but also left the field in tears. In 2014, fourteen years after leaving the club, Batistuta was inducted into Fiorentina’s Hall of Fame.
Batistuta stayed for three seasons at Roma, scoring thirty times in sixty-three games before signing a loan deal for Internazionale.
At one point he looked set to move to England, with Fulham said to be close to securing a deal, but instead, he played out the last two years of his career in Qatar where he played for Al-Arabi.
His international career lasted from 1991 to 2002, and as well as winning two Copa America titles, he was also part of the successful Argentina side that triumphed in the 1992 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Batistuta appeared in the final stages of three World Cups – 1994, 1998, and 2002 – without progressing any further than the quarter-finals, but he did manage to score a remarkable fifty-four goals in seventy-seven appearances.
Throughout his career, Gabriele Batistuta was known for his honesty and his work ethic but was far more than just a hard-working asset to the team. His shooting ability was legendary and he was the scorer of some wonderful long-range goals.
He was highly respected by team-mates and opponents alike, and perhaps it is telling that in 1994 he was named by Pele in the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest players, while Maradona described him as the best striker he has ever seen play the game.
There surely can be no better compliment than having two such luminaries sing one’s praises so highly.