Gabriel Batistuta: The Angel sent from footballing heaven

Date published: Friday 17th April 2020 1:18

Is there a bigger 1990s football icon than a celebrating Gabriel Batistuta with ‘Nintendo’ donned on his chest?


Who’s this then?
Gabriel Omar Batistuta is now 51 years old. Lord, that seems barely believable. A 6′ 2″ Argentinian from Avellaneda, Santa Fe, he grew up in Reconquista. He began his career in 1988 at Newell’s Old Boys then moved to River Plate with whom he won Argentine Primera División 1990. From there he joined Boca Juniors and won the Torneo Clausura in 1991. Then came Fiorentina, for whom he played nine years before moving to Roma for three, winning his first title in Italy, winding up on loan to Inter briefly and ending his career knocking in 27 goals in 21 at Al-Arabi in Qatar.

He is Fiorentina’s all-time top scorer in Serie A with 152 goals and his €36m transfer fee to Roma was the highest ever paid for a player over the age of 30 at the time. His 54 goals in 77 matches for Argentina was a record only beaten by Lionel Messi in 2016. He ended his career having played 537 games and scored 292 goals.

He is the only player in football history to score hat-tricks in different World Cups. Since retiring, although he’s got his coaching badges, football doesn’t seem to hold much attraction for him. He’s since said, “I lived and breathed football,” adding: “When I was playing football I never enjoyed it that much, I was never happy…if I scored two goals, I wanted a third, I always wanted more. Now it’s all over I can look back with satisfaction, but I never felt that way when I was playing.”

Despite his greatness, his trophy haul in Italy is not especially huge: Serie B (1993/94), Coppa Italia (1995/96), Supercoppa Italiana (1996 and 2001) and, finally, the 2001 Serie A title with Roma.

Once retired, he was in such pain with his ankles that at one point he was apparently asking his doctor to amputate his legs. For a player of such power and grace, this is almost too horrific to think about. Thankfully, his wishes were not granted and he eventually made some sort of recovery after an operation to relieve the pressure on his cartilage and tendons. However, he still suffers pain in his legs to this day.

Call him Batigol or Angel Gabriel; he was one of the finest and most distinctive strikers of his generation. A man with flowing long hair who seemed to look cool in every football shirt he pulled on, especially iconic in the violet, and in the sky blue, white and black of his country. In many ways he is the poster boy for what we tend to call the Football Italia years. Close your eyes when you hear that programme’s theme tune and he is probably the first image that comes to mind.

 

Why the love?
Before we talk about his football, it has to said he is a beautiful man. Blessed with long, dark eyelashes to frame his icy clear eyes, he has a charismatic, pretty, rough, boyish look about him. Just really suited long hair, too. It gave him a wild, untamed look which, when worn unshaven, meant he had that classic Argentinian gaucho quality. Easy to imagine him in a long duster coat, arriving in a one-horse town, looking around himself with narrowed eyes, chewing on a matchstick as a buzzard flies overhead. There is just something epic about him.

He is tall and powerfully built. If you look at his backside, calves and thighs, this is no modern-style middle-distance athlete; this is a man who grew up playing tough football and had to be physically equipped to deal with it. This is also tremendously appealing and is a reminder of what we lost by making football more about pace and acceleration and less about power and strength.

The sheer power with which he could hit a ball is simply remarkable. Showreels of his goals reveal someone who could hit a free-kick into the top corner from 40 yards, who wasn’t afraid to shoot from any angle or distance and who, when he did shoot, really put his foot through the ball, even if he was just six yards out.

And his goal celebration was every bit as much part of his legend: arms outstretched, screaming, his hair flying all over the place.

He has attracted much love for his loyalty to I Viola, for whom he is their all-time top scorer, staying on board even when they were relegated. He was Serie A top scorer in 1994/95 with 26, breaking Ezio Pascutti’s 32-year-old record by scoring in all of the first 11 matches of the campaign.

His 203 goals in 331 games included scoring over 20 per season for six out of seven consecutive campaigns. No wonder they erected a statue of him in Florence – even though it is, as all such statues invariably are, terrible.

 

What the people love
The Angel Gabriel is embedded in a lot of people’s football DNA from an era where Italian football was not only the best in the world, it still felt distant, exotic and almost impossibly glamorous to us on these islands. He seemed to embody all these qualities perfectly. So it was no surprise my post bag was bulging with Batigol love.

‘The ferocity of finish at Old Trafford often means it’s overlooked how quickly he sidesteps someone as good as Stam. Air guitar celebration at Juve an iconic moment too.’

‘Got me hooked on football as a kid through his exploits on Channel 4. An all-time great and felt like a big deal whenever he set foot on British soil. Death, taxes and a Batigol finish were for a period the only certainties in life. Horrendous that he lives in agony now.’

‘I once was at a pub quiz whilst Wembley was being done up, and the question was ‘who was the last Welsh-speaking player to score at Wembley’. The answer, which I still do not believe to this day, was Batistuta. But you almost want it to be true.’

‘Named my son after him. Says it all really.’

‘Superb. A definite fave. He’s always one of those I think of as never getting a big move. I guess there just weren’t as many transfers back then/more money cautious/three foreigners rule (early part of his career anyway).’

‘A gem of a player. Bonus was the way Kevin Keegan pronounced his name as “Batty’s Tutor” as if he’d been giving the midfield hard man extra maths lessons.’

‘Scored one of the best goals I’ve seen live – for Fiorentina v Man U – absolute belter.’

‘I loved his hair so much I copied it. I even tried to play like him, turns out it was only my hair and not skills that was vaguely similar.’

‘One of the first goals my mind instinctively flicks to when I think of football is his incredible long-range strike against Man United in the Champs League. Brilliant player.’

‘Is there a more iconic person of 1990’s football than Batistuta? He was a great scorer of goals, a scorer of great goals, helped Roma (and Totti) win their first Scudetto since the ’80s and looked amazing while doing it. Absolute legend.’

‘I loved the way he nodded as if to say “And quite right, too!” when Beckham received his infamous red card. And he must be one of the few players to have a (shit) statue erected in his honour while he was still playing in the top flight.’

‘The most wonderfully thrilling and visceral player. I’ve never found any footballer more exciting. Other players may offer subtlety or finesse, Battistuta offered shock and awe. Few things cheer me up like watching a reel of his finest goals.’

‘Supreme goalscorer. Great hair. Scored against the Arsenal at Wembley. Should have played for Spurs.’

‘His goal against Arsenal both broke and won my heart. Destroyed my team but made me a fan for life. I’m not sure I can remember a player who played the game in the same way as him.’

‘I’m not mentally or physically prepared to contribute towards this, John. Sorry, but he makes me go all gooey inside, and I can’t sit still or think straight.’

‘He was one of those strikers you’d have loved to have been yourself; a powerful, confident, handsome fellow that always seemed to score. An extremely charismatic man.’

‘He was the epitome of the long-haired South American gunslinger strikers.’

‘That goal he scored at Wembley against Arsenal was just brutal. Deftness of touch and movement followed by a total howitzer into the roof of the net. Different class from yer average late 90s Prem battler.’

‘Best striker ever and that purple kit is beyond iconic.’

‘Absolutely loved him, probably my favourite player as a child, looked great in that purple kit. Even then, I knew he was the complete player. Then learning how much he gave to football (his knees are absolutely knackered) made me love him even more.’

‘I once shouted out his name during sex. He’s the reason we all love the Fiorentina Nintendo jersey. An awesome striker.’

‘Batigol was my hero!’

‘I used to tune in to Gazetta Football Italia every weekend to watch him run riot with Edmundo and Luis Oliveira with the wonderful Rui Costa just behind.’

‘If any player captured the exotic excitement of Football Italia perfectly it was Batigol and if him remorselessly hammering home doesn’t get your pulse sharpening then football may just not be for you. Was the reason I wanted shoulder-length hair for a spell.’

‘Everything you could have ever wanted in a striker. Flowing locks and a cannon for a foot. I used to imagine him in the Premier League. Would have loved it.’

‘Salivated every transfer window at the prospect of him joining United. Was disappointed in the end when he left Fiorentina, especially for relatively unheralded Roma. He fully deserved that Serie A title though.’

‘Loved watching him for years. I followed Fiorentina, then Roma and even Argentina! I (still) own the C4 Golazzo VHS and have an abiding memory of one goal. One on one with the keeper, miles out and instead of running closer for an easier goal – belts it past him from 25 yards.’

‘From being told, at 24, that he wasn’t good enough to make it to becoming a world-class icon. Class!’

‘An absolute beast of a player. Used to love watching him on Channel 4 Italian football.’

‘The most ruthless thing in Florence since the Medici family.’

‘He’s why I used to watch Football Italia on Sundays. The gun-shooting goal celebrations.’

‘Fantastic hair, fantastic striker in one of the most iconic kits of all time: purple with the Nintendo logo on the front, perfection.’

‘Would have been a top quality striker in any era of the game. He could hurt teams from anywhere, facing goal or with his back to it. His goal record of 54 in 77 games for Argentina took Messi over 110 games to achieve. Phenomenal striker.’

‘Remember his belter v Arsenal in Champions League at Wembley. Batigol!’

‘Just a handsome bastard.’

‘The most brutal finisher of all time. Hit the ball like he despised its existence.’

 

Three great moments

What a thunderous hit this was. And he managed to pull off wearing a head band as well!

Power and pace gets him past the defender before unleashing an unstoppable drive.

At 0:33 he begins an incredible run from just outside his own penalty box. No-one gets near him. Of course.

 

What Now?
There’s a sense that he isn’t as respected in Argentina as he is in Italy. His account of visiting the national side dressing room in 2017 is very revealing.

“I went into the dressing room to say hello and only half of them gave me the time of day. I took it as a generation thing because I’ve got nothing to do with most of these kids.

“I would have liked a better reception, not for who I am, but because I played there and was in that dressing room. But I am not going to cry about it.

“These kids haven’t been helped by those in charge, I don’t see any world champions around there and there is no recognition. Nobody knows what we did before because nobody tells them.”

That seems very sad. How can they not be fans of Batigol?

Since retiring in 2005 he took up polo and in 2009 lifted the Copa Stella Artois with the Tom Tailor team, which is apparently a very high standard. But his painful ankles forced him to retire from that too.

He plays a lot of golf now, has done a little media work but by and large seems to live a blameless, quiet existence. But for his fans, he will always be the Angel Gabriel, hair streaming, arms outstretched, screaming in celebration after scoring yet another wonderful goal. What a man.

John Nicholson

 

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