‘Amateur’ is a curious sporting word. For so long used to describe the Corinthian spirit among disorganised games, it has since taken on a negative connotation. Now it is intended as an insult. Amateur. Gauche. Blundering.
The etymology of ‘amateur’ hints at a far more positive definition. Stemming from the Latin verb ‘amare’ – to love – it literally means a lover of something. Being an amateur should therefore not be a reflection of competence, but motivation. Gabriel Batistuta might be football’s greatest amateur goalscorer of the last 30 years, in the truest sense of the word.
Few sportspeople have taken more obvious joy from their endeavours as Batistuta from scoring a goal. Arms would stretch out, hair catch in the breeze and face contort to convey delight, relief and pent-up aggression all in unison. He did not so much like football per se, but saw it as the necessary route to goals, only the game’s most precious currency sating his desires. Goals were less a measure of Batistuta’s success, more a barometer for his entire well-being.
For those of a certain age, Peter Brackley exclaiming “Batistutaaaaaaa” is a one-word chapter heading in the diary of a footballing education. Channel 4’s commentator had plenty of opportunity to perfect his art. Batistuta is Fiorentina’s record Serie A goalscorer with 152, and scored 20 or more goals in a Serie A season for four consecutive years. When he finally left for Roma to seek glory, he promptly won them their first Scudetto since 1983. His partnership with Francesco Totti was as close to football nirvana as I can conceive.
If Batistuta’s club record is envious, on the international stage he is almost untouchable. He is still La Albiceleste’s record goalscorer, seven ahead of Lionel Messi; Argentina’s new footballing deity already has 27 more caps. Batistuta’s record of 56 goals in 78 appearances is bettered by only Iran’s Ali Daei of those born post-war. My favourite Batistuta statistic is that he is the only player to score hat-tricks in two World Cups. Just the 23 goals at major international tournaments, 10 in 12 World Cup games.
The most intriguing aspect of Batistuta is the vast gap between player and person. Off the field he is meek, a quiet, private family man who married his childhood sweetheart having met her aged 15. His own official website pictures a poetic scene: ‘In my heart there are always sunsets and sunrises in front of the great river and the smell of the earth at home’ – Jorge Luis Borges could not have done better. On the field he was the personification of passion.
If the jarring cliché is that Batistuta lived for scoring goals, the reality is closer than you might think. In 2005, the former Argentina striker begged doctors to amputate his legs due to the excruciating pain he was suffering.
“I left football and overnight I couldn’t walk,” Batistuta told TyC Sports. “I wet the bed even though the bathroom was only three metres away. It was 4am and I knew if I stood my ankle would kill me. I went to see a doctor and told him to cut off my legs. He looked at me and told me I was crazy. I couldn’t bear it any longer. I can’t put in to words just how bad the pain was.”
Three months before that medical emergency, Batistuta was still playing for Al-Arabi in Qatar. The current trend is to see the Middle East as a nursing home for demotivated footballers, but Batigol mocked that accusation. He broke the country’s record for the most goals scored in a season, wearing away the last bits of cartilage in his knee. “It’s literally bone on bone all the time,” Batistuta explained, as if he was describing a tap-in. Scoring goals was Batistuta’s morphine. Without it, legs crumbled.
It’s an anecdote which encapsulates Batigol the player and Batistuta the man. He was a fighter, a worker, the best example of what can be achieved when immense natural talent is sculpted, nurtured and cherished. Nicknamed ‘the Animal’ in his younger career for his strength and tenacity, he quickly developed a finishing ability that took him to the top of his sport. Ninety-nine per cent of forwards offset power against placement or vice versa; Batistuta was in the 1% who can do both. He was that most rare of strikers, both a great scorer of goals and a scorer of great goals.
There is nothing morally wrong with money as a motivation for success. Careers are short and fraught with pitfalls. Every game could be your last, every tackle your career-ender. You’re a long time retired after sacrificing your physical and emotional development to the game.
That only elevates those who choose a higher plane. “I’ve always given everything for every team I’ve played for so that the ordinary fans, the people in the stadium, could identify with me,” Batistuta says. “I owe a lot to the fans of Roma, Fiorentina and Argentina. They were the reason I played, my inspiration.”
Those are not empty, PR-driven epithets, either. When Fiorentina were relegated to Serie B in 1993, Batistuta turned down interest from Manchester United and Real Madrid to stay and drag the club back into the top flight. “I would rather have won one title with a team like Fiorentina than ten titles with a team like Manchester United,” he said when asked if he regretted his choice.
Batistuta is thus immortalised in bronze outside the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Inscribed are the words: ‘He is a warrior who will not surrender, who is hard in the fight but is fair in the soul.’ It is a faultless description.
There can only be one way to end this tribute. In 2014, Batistuta was inducted into Fiorentina’s hall of fame. “From the moment I arrived at Fiorentina I wanted a place in the history of the club – and now I can say I have succeeded,” the striker said that night. He tries to keep it together but, as the watching crowd begin to chant his name, gives way. Struggling under the weight of emotion and comforted by his son, Batistuta wipes his tears of happiness away with his own replica shirt. A more fitting way to epitomise a player could not be manufactured.
Argentinean football’s 1980s were defined by Maradona and the 2000s by Messi, but the 1990s belonged to Batigol. He was the perfect mortal to bridge the gap between the Gods. Yet for someone so driven by the love and respect of supporters, there can be only one compliment fitting of the man; Batistuta is the player every fan dreams of being.