When Batistuta and Hagi played in Serie B
Going into the new season of European football in 1992-1993, the Serie A was undoubtedly the strongest league in the world. Full stadiums, fantastic math-ups, clubs dominating their rivals on the continent and squads full of most of the best players in the world. It was not just the traditional “Big 3” of Inter, Juve & Milan that had a galaxy of stars, but even clubs slightly below that level that could call on superstar players.
Two such clubs were Fiorentina and Brescia.
La Viola had one of the best strikers in the game in the form of Argentine Gabriel Batistuta, while La Leonessa could count on the mercurial Romanian talent of one Gheorghe Hagi. However, while both players displayed their ability for all to see, both of their teams were relegated that campaign.
Interestingly, both teams finished tied on 30 points after the 34 game season, level with Udinese. It set up a nerve racking scenario for fans of all three outfits.
The first tie-breaker used was that of the head to head points, and it read Brescia(5), Udinese(4) and Fiorentina(3). It meant that Fiorentina went down automatically, while Brescia and Udinese faced a play-off to determine the fourth and final team to suffer the ignominy of dropping down to Serie B along with Ancona & Pescara, who finished 17th & 18th respectively.
The Lombardians would lose to the Frulians by a 3-1 scoreline at a match played at the neutral ground of the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna.
Given their profile in world football, one would have expected both players to leave their respective clubs, however, they both stayed to try their best to gain promotion back to the top flight. It worked!
Both teams opened their Serie B season in contrasting fashion, as while “Batigol” and Fiorentina started with a 3-0 win over Palermo in Sicily, Hagi and his team could only muster a scoreless draw with Fidelis Andria, also away from home. The clubs met early on in the campaign in round five, as the Artemio Franchi played host to the tussle.However, while Batistuta scored a goal to lead his team to a 2-1 win, Hagi’s game was way below his lofty standards and he was subbed off at the 50 minute.
La Viola dominated Serie B from the start as they went unbeaten in their first 14 matches of the season, which included eight wins and six draws. They tasted defeat for the first time away to Ascoli by a 1-0 margin, but by then had already put down a marker to the rest of the teams in the 20 team table. Batigol, who had 16 goals in the previous season in Serie A, by that stage in Serie B had already garnered eight of his teams 22 goals.
Brescia and Hagi on the other hand were slow off the blocks…They gained just four victories in their first 14 matches, as they suffered four defeats and five draws. Throughout the initial stages of the campaign, Hagi seemed off his game, as his usual creative spark was missing and as such, left his team desperately devoid of his talents.
In defense to the Romanian legend and his team, they were also involved in the Anglo-Italian Cup as well that campaign, so that may have sapped some of their energies that they would have normally given to the league. More on that later…
As the calendar year of 1994 came around, the Tuscans firmly put their foot on the gas, as they won five of their first seven games, with Batistuta not only contributing by banging goals, but his general all-round play was impressive. His strength to hold up the ball, brought his teammates more into the game, his ability to blow past defenders and his ball-control meant La Viola, who were managed by Claudio Ranieri at the time, were scoring goals at a rampant rate.
Hagi and Brescia struggled at the start of 1994. not picking up any wins in their first three games of the year, however, it all began to come together by round 20.At the time they were in mid-table, but managed to go on a fantastic run from late January onwards,as they triumphed in six of their next seven matches, with Hagi seemingly having a revival of his fortunes.
The man who was nicknamed “The Maradona of the Carpathians” by his supporters started orchestrating proceedings for his club. He would collect the ball a bit deeper, carry forward and either set up a teammate or try to conjure up something on his own. Hagi was playing like a man possessed at times and even started directing the players on the field, as an almost prelude to the fact that he would later enter into coaching.
Intriguingly both teams suffered a dip in form by April and neither of them could find the consistently required to guarantee their position at the summit of the league. Fortunately for them, it did not hurt their promotions hopes as a number of teams around them were also going through peaks and valleys from their on field results.
Both Brescia and Fiorentina would eventually gain promotion back up to Serie A on the first time of asking, but the way it was achieved at the end was very different…La Viola basically confirmed their return back up with a 5-1 demolition of Ascoli in early May with Batigol at his pomp with a brace.
The man from Reconquista would finish the league season with 16 strikes to his name, as well as earning the admiration of Fiorentina fans the world over.
The Lombardians had to sweat it out on the final day though…They travelled to Modena and suffered a 2-1 defeat, but still managed to pip Padova to final automatic spot by a single point. The campaign would be doubly delightful for Brescia as they won the Anglo-Italian Cup after beating Notts County by 1-0, as Gabriele Ambrosetti grabbed the sole goal of the final at Wembley.
Both players would then go onto star at the 1994 World Cup in the USA and they would meet again! It was arguably the game of the tournament, as Romania won a five goal thriller 3-2, with both Hagi and Batistuta getting their names on the score-sheet.
Batistuta and Hagi are legends of football and when many would have left after their clubs got relegated, they stayed and guided their respective teams to immediate promotion. This scenario is unlikely to ever be repeated anytime soon, if ever again.
By: Vijay Rahman