His ankles are fucked. They don’t work properly anymore. He used to cry from the pain and even asked the doctor to amputate them just to be free of it. The stress he’d put his body through meant he couldn’t even make it to the bathroom three metres away - he pissed the bed instead. This was not the player the world had been in awe of.
These days not even the kids remember him. After walking into the changing room before a recent international game, most of the players didn’t even recognise him. “I went into the dressing room to say hello and only half of them gave me the time of day.”
Those are the words of Gabriel Omar Batistuta, a man who should need no introduction, for he defined an era that so many still have close to their hearts. The nostalgia of the memories still feel as fresh now as when it happened the for the first time. For fans of a certain age, the sight of Batistuta draped in that iconic purple kit of Fiorentina with Nintendo emblazoned across his chest, his long hair flowing and beard at often questionable degrees of growth embodies what was so beautiful about Italian football in the 90s.
He spent the best years of his career in Italy, and while the Scudetto eluded him in Firenze, he eventually picked one up at Roma before the ankles started to give way. Before then, though, he’d made a name for himself in a whirlwind three years in his native Argentina, with the best of his form coming in Buenos Aires.
Born in 1969, Batistuta came late to football, preferring basketball instead because of his height advantage and didn’t begin kicking a ball until 1978, when the World Cup - being held on his doorstep - captured his imagination. This late start didn’t seem to hold his development back as he quickly figured out how to use his size and strength to his advantage, which he combined with an excellent technical ability.
He was handed his debut just a decade later by Newell’s Old Boys coach Marcelo Bielsa, who was busy starting his own legacy. But away from the pitch, Batistuta struggled to get into the swing of big city life in Rosario. He’d left his friends, family and girlfriend behind in his hometown of Avellaneda.
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Old Boys youth team boss Jorge Griffa had promised the young striker a learning curve that would set him on the path to greatness. He had to fight to convince him to leave everything he knew behind and swung him by promising to pay for his education. However, once his education came to an end, he struggled to find work.
Football in Argentina at that point wasn’t a lucrative business for players, so he worked at the stadium to pay his way, mowing the grass and cleaning the stands after matches. He slept in a cot in one of the stadium’s offices and struggled with a weight problem brought on by the chronic homesickness, which slowed him down.
Not that you’d know it from his prolific form in the Old Boy’s youth side. He earned the nickname ‘The Animal’ and in 1988 Bielsa gave him his chance in the senior team. But the goals didn’t come as freely at the top level.
In the league he managed to find the net just four times in 16 appearances. The fans admired his graft though and he fared better in the Copa Libertadores scoring five in three. But at the end of the season he was sent to Deportivo Italiano in the lower leagues. Based in the capital, the club gave him his first taste of Buenos Aires life. Where he struggled in Roasario, he had no such troubles there, helping the minnows to lift the Carnevale Cup and finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.
It was there that he’d caught the eye of scouts from River Plate, who’d heard that this rambunctious young frontman would be in town. Batistuta had grown up as a fan of Boca, but he jumped at the chance to sign for River.
However, his woes in front of goal continued on from his stint with Old Boy’s. River won the Primera Division that season but Batistuta contributed just three goals in his 19 appearances.
He wasn’t yet the raging bull they’d hoped for. This monster they’d signed from Rosario couldn’t yet repay their faith with goals. Yet, when he did score he did so spectacularly.
Those three goals he scored could all have been contenders for the Goal of the Season showreel, comprising of two pile drivers and a well worked, opportunistic chip over a goalkeeper stranded in no man's land.
But as the season wore on, coach Daniel Passarella, who had been one of Batistuta’s heroes during the 1978 World Cup, decided to drop the youngster from the team. He had apparently not been enamoured with what he’d seen from the young forward.
Batistuta hadn’t been revelling in goals, but his overall performances had been good, and he took the news hard. He considered going home again, Buenos Aires could be lonely when the chips were down, but instead of sulking, he chose to fight and work in training on all the things that his game was missing.
He suffered every weekend, watching his teammates fight it out for the title without him, but training ignited him. Passarella noticed his efforts and he remained unmoved, suggesting that a transfer would soon be on the cards. “When Batistuta finds a team that will be able to play him he will be lethal,” he said.
Batistuta had a clear idea of how football should be played. In his mind there was a duty to excite the people watching from the stands and he swore to himself that he would provide that to the masses sooner or later.
By now, he’d settled into life in the capital. He enjoyed living in a city that was like the metropolis’ he’d heard of but felt at home thanks to its edgy Latin American twist. He knew he couldn’t stay at River and the opportunity to stay came from the most unusual of places. Crossing the divide in any city can be a tricky prospect.
Turning out for a direct rival when coming from the ‘other side’ is not something many players can pull off. But when Boca Juniors came calling for the young striker there was no question as to him taking up the chance. He’d always been a Boca fan. Mesmerised by the noise created at La Bombonera and like everybody else, he’d fallen in love with the blue and yellow shirt.
Initially, it looked as if it would be the same old story at Boca. Coach Osvaldo Potente put him on the right wing. But he wasted little time in getting himself on the score sheet. His first goal came quickly in January as Boca beat Racing 2-1. A parry from the goalkeeper fell to Batistuta just two yards out - he couldn’t miss. His elation was an explosion of the months of frustration he’d built up across town as he jumped the advertising boards to parade himself in front of his new fans behind the fences.
At the end of the month he scored against River. Arriving in the box at the right time, he latched onto a low cut back to put the ball into the roof of the net. Again, he launched off towards the fans behind the goal, clutching at his shirt and screaming back at them. He was never going to make any secret of his delight at scoring against River.
That season he hit five of his 19 goals against River, and celebrated each one as vigorously as the last. But under Potente, Boca weren’t able to dominate games the way they thought they should. He was eventually replaced with Oscar Tabarez, the fabled Uruguayan coach with a reputation for staunch discipline.
He immediately recognised Batistuta as a traditional centre forward and moved him from the right wing. This proved to be an inspired decision as the goals began to flow with more regularity. However, despite Tabarez’s reputation for authority, his early days were rife with violent incidents.
In a Copa Libertadores second leg clash with Chilean side Colo-Colo, held at Santiago’s Estadio Monumental, tempers flared as the home side looked to overturn the 1-0 deficit. Fans and press crowded the touchline, creating a hostile environment and chaotic scenes when the goals flew in. The Chileans won the game 3-1, but at the final whistle Boca’s players clashed with the press, fans, Colo-Colo players and everyone else who got in their way.
Even Tabarez lost his cool, chasing one photographer and taking a hit to the face with a hefty camera, causing his cheek to pour blood. As he attempted to control his players, he grabbed Batistuta by the nipple and dragged him down the tunnel as he launched a verbal attack of his own.
The 17-minute brawl finally came to an end when the police introduced the dogs. One positive to come out of the experience was that Batistuta appeared to love every damn second of it and took the energy he’d experienced back onto the pitch. It appeared as though ‘The Animal’ had now grown claws.
With Tabarez sorting out the defence and Batistuta in prolific form, Boca wrapped up the Clausura and the young striker had earned himself a place in the Argentina squad for the following summer’s Copa America. He knew that he was adored by the fans and that this Boca team had the makings to be remembered for years. He knew that he would be remembered, too, no matter where the team finished and made sure the fans knew he was playing for them.
Tabarez realised a number of teams in Europe were sniffing around his star striker. Much like today, a move to Europe from South America was the only way for a player to truly test themselves and Batistuta knew that. He gave a solid audition at the Copa America in 1991, where his six goals not only won him the Golden Boot, but the tournament as well.
This was enough for Fiorentina to make their move, and it proved to be one of the best pieces of business they’ve ever done. ‘Batigol’ had been born, he’d long since sharpened his teeth, grown claws in Buenos Aires, and now it was time to conquer Europe.
The rest is history. His record in Florence led Diego Maradona to label him as the best striker the country has ever produced and though the youngsters in the Albiceleste team may not remember him, ask the likes of Paolo Maldini and Javier Zanetti if they do. More importantly, ask the Boca fans. They don’t forget anything in a hurry.