Spending nine years in the same job probably wouldn’t earn you a carriage clock or a personalised gold-plated watch, that level of finery is reserved for service of a much greater length. However, after 168 league goals in 269 games, Argentine striker, Gabriel Batistuta had a life-size bronze statue erected in his honour at Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi. A fine memento, although it ranks alongside the Cristiano Ronaldo bust in terms of likeness and a more fitting tribute would be one of his famous goal celebration; fists clenched, arms stretched out wide, like a human version of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say Batistuta’s nine years in Florence have made him a Christ-like figure in Tuscany.
We became accustomed to the celebration of Batigol as his Fiorentina side of the 1990s became a cult team and one of the most competitive outside of the traditional heavyweights. After decades of dominance by the big city clubs, Batistuta, alongside, Rui Costa, Steffen Effenberg, Brian Laudrup, Francesco Baiano, and Stefan Schwarz, came close to securing their first Scudetto in nearly 30 years. Batistuta came to symbolise the club; a powerful and determined, yet sublime and clinical, goal machine who became a Florentine hero and the club’s all-time top goalscorer.
After modest success with Newell’s Old Boys, former home of Lionel Messi (who, incidentally, broke Batistuta’s national goalscoring record in 2016) and River Plate, he crossed the Buenos Aires divide to Boca Juniors. After being stifled by Daniel Passarella at River, Batistuta was given the freedom to attack by his Boca coach Óscar Tabárez. This, along with six goals for Argentina in the victorious 1991 Copa America campaign, led him to Italy as the 22-year-old signed for Fiorentina the same year.
It would be the beginning of one of the most iconic spells in the history of Calcio, but despite Batistuta scoring 14 goals in his Serie A debut season and 19 in his second season, the Viola were relegated. There was much interest from the big boys left in the top division but Batistuta remained loyal to the Curva Fiesole and helped to guide Fiorentina back to Serie A at the first attempt as they finished champions, five points ahead of second place, Bari.
Fiorentina’s next season was one of consolidation, they suffered an 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, however, they finished a respectable 10th in their first season back in Serie A and Batistuta finished as top scorer with 26. This was the first of six seasons where he would finish as Fiorentina’s top goalscorer and many of his goals were assisted by the boots of Rui Costa, who along with Batistuta became a major part of the Fiorentina revival under Claudio Ranieri. Batistuta became the most feared striker in Serie A and his talents were broadcast to the homes of viewers in the UK via Football Italia’s coverage on Channel Four. The long, striding runs, hair flowing behind as he left defenders in his wake became as regular a sight as the powerful finish from almost any angle in those successful seasons in the mid to late 1990s. During that time we saw his full repertoire of goals and the volley, bicycle kick or the deftly executed header rained upon Serie A and Europe.
Fiorentina finished fourth in 1996 and qualified for the UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season. Batistuta scored in every round of the competition until they fell to eventual competition winners, Barcelona, in the Semi Final. Batistuta’s headed goal versus Sparta Prague in the Round of 16 may have been outdone by the emphatic thunderbolt from teammate Stefan Schwarz, but the way Batistuta lost his marker and nodded in the quick, hard cross was sublime marksmanship. He would have his own glorious strike to remember from that competition as he volleyed in a wonderful finish to give his team a 2-0 lead in the Quarter Final First Leg against Benfica. The cross to him seemed to be at chest height and thus awkward to either head or shoot, but he somehow got his leg above the ball and rifled it past Benfica goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme. He also scored a memorable half-volley from the edge of the area in the Semi Final at the Nou Camp. After chesting the ball down everyone, including the Barca defence, knew what was coming next and the trademark power was there for all to see as his shot gave the goalkeeper no chance.
Ninth and fifth place finishes saw Fiorentina remain competitive but just not quite close enough to challenge the contenders, however, third place in 1998/99, the high-water mark of the Batigol epoch, gave them entry into the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 30 years. They made the second group stage (the current era’s Round of 16), the highlights of Batistuta’s contribution to their cup run were goals against English teams, Arsenal and Manchester United; both stunning strikes, again fierceness and velocity were their hallmark. The goal against Arsenal at Wembley was similar to the strike against Benfica the previous season and indeed only the most cold-hearted and staunch Arsenal or United fan would fail to have been impressed by Batistuta’s goals against their teams.
Fiorentina again followed up their respectable Champions League campaign with an inconsistent 1999/00 season, finishing seventh, and although they were guaranteed UEFA Cup football the following season it was clear more was needed to keep hold of their legendary striker. Batistuta was by now at the peak of his career and despite starting well in what would be his final season in Florence, a month-long injury hampered him and the team.
There was to be no repeat of the Hellas Verona fairy tale of 1985 and Fiorentina eventually granted Batistuta the chance to try and win that elusive Scudetto medal. He joined Roma in 2000 and Batistuta’s 20 goals helped his new side to only their third ever title, although for him it was tinted with much sorrow as he faced his old side on 30 November 2000. With just under 10 minutes left he inevitably scored the winning goal; a goal worthy of winning any game, or any competition for that matter. Once again the goal was classic-Batistuta as the ball was half-cleared to the edge of the area and he leathered an unstoppable volley past the helpless Fiorentina goalkeeper. Batistuta, clearly distressed, refused to celebrate, although the mark of respect not to celebrate against one’s old club is a regular occurrence now it was a concept which was virtually unthought of back then. At the end of the game, he applauded the 3000 travelling fans and they reciprocated as he left the pitch in tears. Such an outpouring of emotion was uncommon for a usually private and withdrawn character.
While Roma were riding high, Fiorentina unravelled quickly after Batistuta’s departure and despite winning the Coppa Italia in 2001 they were relegated in 2002 as the state of their finances was laid bare. Wages had been unpaid for a while and they were declared bankrupt reportedly owing more than £25m, in this state they couldn’t compete in Serie B and to all intents ceased to exist just a few years after finishing third and starring in the Champions League. They began the next season in Serie C/2 and started on the long journey back to Serie A. Batistuta, then 33, was on the decline too, after a run of poor form for Roma he joined Internazionale on loan in 2003 and then made his final bow in Qatar until his retirement in 2005.
Some may say he didn’t win much in the way of silverware during his career, just three trophies in Italy (one of those a glorified friendly) and two Copa America titles with Argentina, however, he like a long list of players before and since has brought more to a club than mere trophies. The cult status he has among Fiorentina’s fans is worth more than any prize. Players of his type will only come around for Fiorentina, and those on the periphery of the title contenders, once in a generation, maybe longer. But their passion, loyalty and connection with the fans will live much longer in the memory. Batistuta’s goals record, with all due respect to Fiorentina, will likely never be beaten, but that alone is his legacy to the club, the city and thousands of fans across the world, and it will be treasured like a Serie A winners’ medal for years to come.