Before embarking on a lucrative swansong in Qatar, Batigol had spent the previous twelve years re-writing Serie A goalscoring records. In nine seasons with Fiorentina he became the club’s all-time leading scorer and sharp-shooted himself into the esteemed top ten of Serie A strikers. He was Serie A Capocannoniere in 1994/95 and lifted the Scudetto in 2000/01 after a £23m move to Roma. In 1999 the angel Gabriel came third in the FIFA World Player of the Year vote and to this day remains the Argentine national side’s leading marksman with 56 goals in just 78 caps – including ten goals in 12 World Cup games.
But all this came about from a fairly inauspicious start. At 18 Batistuta was still playing youth football in his homeland until Newell’s Old Boys took a punt on him. After a bright and breezy debut season he was signed to Buenos Aires giants River Plate where he soon fell foul of the draconian methods of Coach Daniel Passarella. After only seven outings for los Millionarios, Passarella carted him off to River’s arch-enemy Boca Juniors – a move which proved to be the making of Batigol.
In a season and a half at la Bombonera, Batistuta became the Argentine Premier League’s top scorer en route to securing the 1991 title. His form was enough to earn him a debut cap for la Albiceleste against Brazil and fix himself a spot in the 1991 Copa America squad. Under the newly appointed tutelage of Alfio Basile, Argentina were in transition. Most of the faces from the ’86 World Cup triumph and subsequent Italia ’90 tragedy had been replaced, with Diego Maradona in the middle of a drugs ban. The inductees, including Batistuta and Diego Simeone, then set off on a 33-game three year unbeaten streak encompassing two Copa America’s.
The first of which – Chile ’91 – saw Argentina end an improbable 32 year wait for the trophy. Batistuta had entered the Copa relatively unknown but left it a star. The competition had a curious make-up. Two groups of five, all playing each other once with the top two from either group going on to contest a final round robin to determine the overall winner. In Batigol’s second appearance for Argentina he broke his duck with a brace against Venezuela and followed that up with the only goal of the game against hosts Chile at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. Batistuta scored again as the Argies romped past Paraguay 4-1 in the next game to secure progress before he was rested against Peru. The final round kicked off in typically low-key South American fare. Argentina and Brazil shared five goals, five red cards and the riot police with Batistuta notching the decisive strike. A goalless draw with Chile in the next match meant a win in the final tie against Colombia would see Argentina crowned champions.
The tournament’s main man was at it again, scoring his side’s second in a 2-1 to earn himself the Golden Boot, the Player of the Tournament and a move to Italy. Batistuta would go on to represent Argentina in the ’93 and ’95 Copa America’s and the ’94, ’98 and 2002 World Cups – finish all of them as his country’s top scorer.
They didn’t call him Batigol for nothing.