This week's addition to The Cult wrote his name in football history as a prolific goalscorer for both club and country. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Keeping it Simple
Football is a simple game. 11 players on each team, with both sides trying to navigate a ball into a large rectangle, which we rather grandly call "the goal". Given its size – the average dimensions measures eight feet high by 24 feet wide – the task does not seem too challenging. I mean, we're not discussing rocket science here.
On the pitch, however, the simplicity is often transformed into a more complex affair. As fans, we can find this very frustrating – especially the difficulty some players have in placing the ball in the back of the net. Only a chosen few, it would seem, have a map of the goal printed inside their heads; fewer still are able to coordinate that image with their feet.
Gabriel Batistuta was among that blessed group. To him, it all appeared so simple. The Argentine striker developed an intimate relationship with the ball and seemed to speak the language of football better than most, a fact attested to by the many goals he scored from every angle. Most were two-touch marvels – he would first get comfortable with the ball, then dispatch it to the back of the net – though he was just as adept at a thunderous first-time finish.
Though we might think them corny, nicknames are ancient tools used to praise the skills of mortals. In the Iliad, Homer describes Achilles as the "swift-footed" warrior and Hector as "the horse-taming" prince. In football, only a few are able to truly honour their nicknames. Batistuta – or "Batigol", to use his correct moniker – lived up to his from the beginning of his career until the very end.
Such was his quality that, until recently, he remained his nation's all-time top scorer – only Lionel Messi could outdo him – and he is still top of the goal charts at Fiorentina, the club with which he is most closely associated. Batistuta was also known as El Ángel Gabriel; given his penchant for divine intervention, that also seems pretty apt.
Point of Entry: Through the Pain Barrier
In late 2014, Batistuta gave an interview in which he opened up about the excruciating pain he experienced in his legs following the end of his career. The agony was so debilitating, he confessed, that at his worst moments he considered having his legs amputated.
"I left football and overnight I couldn't walk. 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 Doctor Avanzi (an Orthopaedics specialist) 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. I looked at Oscar Pistorius and said, 'That's my solution'."
With this in mind, we should feel even more appreciation for what he did on the football pitch. His condition deteriorated in the final years of his career due to the lack of cartilage and tendons on his joints, which caused his bones to graze one another. It is difficult to imagine the physical suffering this caused.
2014 was also the year in which Batistuta received one of the greatest honours of his career when he was inducted into the Fiorentina hall of fame. It was richly deserved: the Argentine was the star striker at La Viola for nine seasons, between 1991 and 2000, finding the net 207 times in 332 appearances and forever etching his name into the club's history.
The Florentine fans loved him – they still do – but his passion for the purple jersey was perhaps made most clear when he scored against them. Having moved to Roma, where he deservedly earned a Serie A winner's medal in 2001, he faced his old side for the first time in November 2000. Batistuta scored a stunning late goal to win the game – and promptly burst into tears.
When discussing Batistuta, his contribution to the Argentine national team cannot be forgotten. Batigol contributed hugely to La Albiceleste, with both his technique and personality proving vital. In 1991 he was top scorer at the Copa America as Argentina secured victory. Two years later they lifted the trophy again, with Batistuta scoring both goals in their 2–1 win over Mexico in the final.
Alas, the World Cup proved beyond Argentina's grasp during Batistuta's career. Three appearances on football's biggest stage yielded no more than a run to the quarter-finals in 1998, with Batigol's World Cup career ending in disaster with a group stage exit at the 2002 tournament.
When he was informed that Messi was just one goal shy of his Argentina goal-scoring record, Batigol reacted with surprise. "Oh, I didn't know that!" he responded. But unlike many players, who fear the fall of their records and begrudgingly congratulate the new holder, Batistuta was gracious: "I never cared about the stats. Now, when Leo breaks my record it's going to hurt a little," he confessed with a laugh. "But it isn't as if a nobody is going to break it. He's not a normal being – an alien is going to surpass me! That leaves me a little bit more at peace."
The Moment: Fiorentina vs. Arsenal, 27 October 1999
Having to choose one moment for a player as prolific as Batistuta is difficult to the point of being unfair. It seemed as though Batigol was always there exactly when his team needed him most, whether that was the national side or at club level. He was the man who came to the rescue.
But choose we must, and it is his Champions League goal against Arsenal in 1999 that gets the nod.
Why? Because unlike his Copa-winning goals against Mexico in 1993, or the hat-trick he scored on his debut for La Albiceleste against Greece, Fiorentina were underdogs in this game. Batistuta's match-winning strike at Wembley not only sent the Italian side into the next round, it also gave their fans hope for what was to come.
"For me, he's the best striker I've ever seen."––Diego Maradona