Mention the name Gabriel Batistuta and one word springs to mind – Batigol. It was the nickname used lovingly to describe the striker that terrorised defences in Europe during the 1990s and early 2000s. His exploits for Fiorentina and then Roma are well known, but it is his early days that are less explored, a tale as compelling as his peak years and later days in his footballing career.
Born on 1st February 1969, Gabriel Batistuta may have decided to play another sport were it not for his idol Mario Kempes’ exploits that helped Argentina win the 1978 World Cup. Initially joining a junior team in Platense, it was in the provincial championships that he would receive his first break, scoring two goals to defeat Newell’s Old Boys. Impressed by what they saw, Newell’s under manager Marcelo Bielsa were able to persuade the youngster to make the journey to Rosario and sign for them.
Bielsa saw a rough diamond in Batistuta – physical, tall and good in the air. Implementing a diet would pay off as the youngster would impress at the youth level. His reward would be his first team debut in the league against San Martín de Tucumán in September 1988. He would also make a good impression in the 1988 Copa Libertadores final vs Nacional, even though Newell lost to the Uruguayans, Batistuta won plaudits for his spirited display.
Afterwards, the striker was sent on loan to Italy in Sportivo Italiano in January 1989. They had been invited to participate in the Carnevale Cup, a traditional 16-team youth tournament held in Viareggio, Italy. Several Argentines had been loaned to Sportivo including Diego López Maradona, the nephew of the more famous uncle who was at Napoli at the time.
Though Sportivo drew the first game 0-0 to AC Milan, Batistuta would show his talents with a hat-trick in the second game in a 4-0 win vs CSKA Sofia. A goalless draw vs Napoli secured a place in the quarter-finals vs Torino. The game ended 0-0, going to penalties, yet Batistuta would be the unlucky one to have his spot kick saved.
Returning to Argentina after his loan spell, River Plate moved in for him, a move he accepted despite Batistuta being a Boca Juniors fan. Despite being at Newell’s for less than a year, Batistuta would credit Bielsa in his autobiography as the most important coach he ever had.
Though he would win the league with River in the 1989-90 season, he had a bit part role, soon frozen out of the first team by strict coach Daniel Passarella who preferred Rubén da Silva and Ramón Medina Bello. Without first-team football, Batistuta was handed a lifeline when he was signed by Boca Juniors ahead of the 1990-91 season. Though crossing the divide in such a tribal rivalry would paint a target on a player’s back, Batistuta had extenuating circumstances.
But to explore Batistuta’s time at Boca, we must delve into the intricacies of the Argentine league system during the 1990s. The 1990-91 campaign was split into two seasons – the Apertura (opening) and Clausura (closing) with the winners of both seasons facing each other in a two-legged tie to decide the championship. Boca were poor in the Apertura, played from 20th August 1990-22 December 1990, finishing 8th epitomised by drawing 7 of their 19 games.
Batistuta scored just twice and such form led to the sacking of manager Carlos Aimar. Aimar’s replacement for the Clausura was Uruguayan Oscar Tabarez. Fresh from taking Uruguay to the last 16 of the World Cup the previous summer, as well as winning the 1987 Copa Libertadores with Penarol, this was Tabarez’s first coaching job in Argentina. On the back of Boca’s lacklustre Apertura campaign, Tabarez made a change up front by partnering starter Diego Latorre with Batistuta.
It would have an explosive effect for Boca, but primarily for Batistuta in three games before the beginning of the Clausura. In Tabarez’s debut game as manager, Batistuta scored in a 2-1 win vs Racing on January 22nd, then scored in a 2-0 win vs Independiente and ingratiated himself to Boca fans by scoring twice in the Superclásico vs River.
Such blistering form continued when Boca travelled to Argentinos Juniors in the opening game of the Clausura on the 24th February 1991, Batistuta scoring alongside a brace for Latorre in a 3-1 win.
The next game at home to Huracán showcased Batistuta’s all-round game, his first goal from outside the box needing just three touches. The first to receive the ball with his back to goal, the second to provide him space for the shot and the third resulting in the ball curling in the goal off the far post. His second later in the half was on the counterattack, showcasing his composure when one-on-one with the goalkeeper, slotting the ball in the bottom corner to seal a 2-0 win.
The Latorre/Batistuta partnership was at it’s most murderous in the following game at Unión – both scoring twice in a 4-0 win. Goalless draws in Round 4 and 5 against Independiente and Chaco Forever didn’t dampen Boca’s spirits as they won 1-0 vs River Plate in the Superclásico at La Bombonera. Batistuta would have his revenge in the Copa Libertadores, with River and Boca drawn together in the group stage, Batistuta scoring twice in a 4-3 win on February 27th. Boca would easily progress into the knockout stages, while River finished bottom of their group, much to the fans’ delight.
Batistuta would be amongst the goals in the league in Round 7 in thunderous fashion, rocketing a free kick into the top corner in a 1-1 draw vs Rosario Central. The first of many powerful long-range goals in his career. Despite going goalless in Round 8 (2-0 win vs Gimnasia) and Round 9 (0-0 vs Ferro Carril Oeste), Batistuta would thrive in the Copa Libertadores knockout stages during that time – scoring twice in a 3-1 win vs Corinthians in the first leg of the last 16. A 1-1 draw at Brazil in the 2nd leg booked passage to the quarter-finals.
The Argentine found the back of the net in Round 10 to put the seal on a 2-0 win vs Velez Sarsfeld. Yet it was in the Copa Libertadores quarter-final vs Flamengo where the real drama was to come. 2-0 down after 66 minutes, Batistuta would convert a vital penalty to take back a 2-1 deficit to La Bombonera a week later. Flamengo could not hold onto their narrow lead, with Batistuta scoring the opener with a penalty and his sixth goal of the tournament. Boca would turn over the Brazilians 3-0 to win 4-2 on aggerate in a tempestuous fixture that had three red cards.
The joy of Boca winning their next three league games, despite no goals by Batistuta, was tempered by heartbreak in the Copa Libertadores semi-finals. A 1-0 win at home in the first leg to Colo Colo was followed by disaster in Chile as they lost 3-1 in the second leg and 3-2 on aggregate to the eventual champions.
Batistuta channelled such heartbreak into giving no mercy whatsoever against Racing Club – slotting a hat-trick in a 6-1 demolition. Batistuta failed to score in rounds 15-18 but it heralded two big milestones for the striker. Going undefeated from Rounds 15-18 with two wins and two draws sealed the Clausura for Boca and a championship match against Newell’s.
The second milestone was Batistuta’s form had brought recognition from La Albiceleste, Alfio Basile calling him up for a friendly against Brazil, earning his debut in a 1-1 draw on June 27th. Batistuta celebrated in the perfect way, rounding off the Clausura with a goal in a 3-0 win vs Platense.
Under Tabarez’s stewardship, ably assisted by the lethal partnership of Latorre/Batistuta, Boca had gone undefeated in the Clausura, with a five-point lead over 2nd placed San Lorenzo, impressive considering it was two points for a win back then.
Even more impressive was the statistics behind Tabarez’s revival under Boca in the Clausura. They won 13 games and drew 6 – scored the most goals with 32 (Batistuta with 11 and Latorre with 9) and conceded the least amount of goals with just 6.
However, the lethality of Latorre/Batistuta would prove a double-edged sword for Boca as the celebrated duo would be called up by Argentina for the 1991 Copa America to be held in Chile throughout July. With the opening game of the tournament on the 6th July, it clashed with the two-legged championship decider between Boca and Newell’s – the first leg on the 6th and the second on the 9th.
Newell’s won the first leg at home 1-0, while Boca without Latorre and Batistuta ably won the second leg 1-0 to put it to penalties. Alas, it wasn’t to be, as three missed spot kicks by Boca meant Newell’s won the league 3-1 on penalties.
Amidst the heartbreak suffered by Boca, Batistuta was focused on international football, part of an Argentina side that was hoping to win their first Copa America since 1959. A year since losing the World Cup final to West Germany, Argentina had a squad with several newcomers alongside Latorre and Batistuta such as a young Diego Simeone at Pisa in Italy, Huracán’s Antonio Mohamed, River Plate’s Leonardo Astrada, Lanus’ Leonardo Rodriguez, Newell’s Dario Franco and Fernando Gamboa.
The format for that year’s Copa America was starkly different from the one today because in 1991 only the ten South American nations competed rather than invited nations outside the continent participating, as would happen in future editions of the tournament. How the 1991 edition worked was there were two groups of five teams each. Each team played their opponent in the group once and the top two would advance to the next stage.
Argentina were drawn in Group A with hosts Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. Their first game was against Venezuela in a rainy Santiago on the 8th July. Batistuta took just 28 minutes to score when Diego Simeone’s free-kick into the box was headed across the six-yard box by Óscar Ruggeri and tapped in by the onrushing striker. With Claudio Caniggia doubling Argentina’s lead before halftime, Batistuta converted a penalty to make it 3-0 and seal a comfortable opening win.
Their next fixture was a tricky proposition against the hosts Chile two days later. A topsy-turvy game was decided in just nine minutes by Batistuta himself. Denied brilliantly earlier in that half by Patricio Toledo, Batistuta made no mistake when played in by Caniggia and coldly used his pace to blitz past his marker and slide the ball past Toledo to score off the post. It was the mark of a lethal striker – a finish that his idol Kempes would be proud of.
Argentina would put Paraguay to the sword two days later in Concepción, though it took 40 minutes for the opener to come, Batistuta with his fourth goal in three games with a tidy finish. Argentina would score three more goals to win 4-1. With qualification to the final stage assured, Basile rested nine players (including Batistuta) in their last group game of the first stage vs Peru, a consequence of their fourth game in seven days. It mattered little as Argentina overcame a spirited Peru side 3-2.
The final stage of the 1991 Copa America consisted of four teams who would play each other once – with the top spot lifting the trophy. Chile’s 4-0 win vs Paraguay meant they joined Argentina from Group A in the latter stage. Colombia and Brazil made up the other two teams to qualify from Group B.
It would start with a bang as Argentina faced Brazil in Santiago on July 17th. Selecao manager Falcão was under immense pressure due to the lacklustre performance in the first stage, the media calling for the former Brazilian international’s sacking.
The game itself would also start with a bang when Argentina had the dream start – scoring in less than a minute when Dario Franco headed in from a corner. Brazil struck back in thunderous style just three minutes later when Branca unleashed a fearsome 35-yard free kick that rifled past keeper Sergio Goycochea.
In such a fiery rivalry, the game would explode on 31 minutes when Caniggia reacted badly to a terrible challenge by Mazinho and both players were sent off. It would not be the last red card brandished by Paraguayan ref Carlos Maciel.
With both sides down to 10 men, Argentina were the ones to strike when a great cross by Leonardo Rodriguez was expertly guided in by Franco for his second goal. Rodriguez would turn provider once more for Batistuta a minute into the second half, his lofted cross from the right brilliantly placed into the bottom corner for his fifth goal of the tournament.
Brazil pulled a goal back on 52 minutes and that is when the fireworks were let off. Argentina’s Carlos Enrique and Brazil’s Marcio Bittencourt were sent off when they engaged in a simultaneous horror challenge – Marcio with a two-footed lunge and Enrique stamping on Marcio. Brazil would then be sent down to 8 men when Careca elbowed Ruggeri.
Argentina held on for the win while Brazil would sack Falcao after the tournament. Victory meant a win in their final game vs Colombia would seal the Copa America title. In such an important game, it was Batistuta who would lead from the front in the absence of the suspended Caniggia.
Argentina would take control of the game on 11 minutes when Diego Simeone headed in from close range. Argentina doubled their lead eight minutes later when Rodriguez played in Batistuta. His first touch controlled the ball effortlessly and the second touch was a low shot rifling past Rene Higuita at the near post for his sixth goal of the tournament.
Argentina faced off against France in the 2022 World Cup Final — both sides vying for their third star — and secured their first title since 1986.
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) January 26, 2023
Though Colombia pulled a goal back, Argentina held on for their first Copa America in 32 years. A crowning triumph, it propelled Batistuta into a hero for Argentines, his six goals made him the tournament’s top scorer.
Representatives from Europe’s top clubs were in attendance at the Copa America and one of them included Fiorentina’s vice president. Enraptured by what he saw, it led to Fiorentina signing Batistuta and Latorre from Boca Juniors that summer.
While Latorre would stay at La Viola for just a season, it would be Batistuta who would leave an indelible mark in Italian football for over a decade.
By: Yousef Teclab / @TeclabYousef
Featured Image: Neal Simpson – EMPICS / PA Images