Sometimes blogs take a long time to write. You’re keen to provide something insightful and factual – something people can read with interest and as a source for their next stat-off down the pub.
But sometimes, just sometimes, blogs aren’t about that. And tonight is one of those nights. As I sit in the dark, waiting for sleep, I’m playing a reel in my head. The star of that particular reel – the unforgettable, undeniable, indescribable Batigol.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive and well written review of Gabriel Batisuta’s career, then I suggest you head over to These Football Times, where Matt Gault summarised the great man as well as anyone has back in 2015. But me? I’m just going to wax lyrical about the bloke because, if I’m completely honest, he was my first love.
When I say first love, I don’t mean first football love. I mean a genuine first love. I don’t know what it was about him but he seemed untouchable, unplayable – almost God-like.
Back in the 1990s, I was lucky enough to be able to see him play regularly in his prime, in the purple of Fiorentina. In the days when my brother waited to see Maldini, Del Piero and Baggio in the highlights that were interspersed with James Richardson’s acerbic wit, I couldn’t wait to see the Argentinian striker I loved take to the field. Something about the combination of AC Jimbo, Gabby and the unforgettable voice of Peter Brackley on commentary made Sundays that little bit less depressing than they otherwise might be.
Understandably, though, it wasn’t Batistuta’s exploits in Italy that were the moments that stuck in my mind. Being based in Britain in my childhood, it was his respective Champions League appearances against Arsenal and Manchester United that lingered in my brain.
Everyone remembers the goal against Arsenal at Wembley that sealed a 1-0 for La Viola in the first group stage. And they certainly remember the consolation Batistuta scored at Old Trafford in a 3-1 loss to Man United. But I like the other one he scored. The first of 2 in a 2-0 win over Man United in the second group stage at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
Look at it. Okay, it doesn’t have the bombastic nature of the ones at Old Trafford and Wembley. It isn’t as far out and it certainly didn’t come as close to bursting the net as the other two. But there’s a specific detail I like about it – and one which I think sums up what made Batigol so great.
The Manchester United player who made the unfortunate error of playing Batistuta in on goal was none other than Roy Keane. A man never afraid to criticise others and, yet, reluctant to show weakness himself, he just can’t help it as he realises what he’s done. Instinct takes over and the Irishman raises his hands to his head in disbelief. Before thought or consideration comes into it, he knows the error is all his own. More than that, he’s realised who is on the end of his inadvertently defence-splitting pass – and he knows about the near-inevitable outcome it will bring.
The reaction of Keane – and particularly the fact it came from him – shows what regard Gabriel Batistuta was held in at his peak. There was an inevitability about his goal-scoring. A notion, widely held around the footballing world, that he only needed a chance. While other strikers needed 5 or 6 attempts to put the ball in the net, chances were Batigol could do it with one. Whether it was from 40 yards or 4, from inside or outside the box, give the man the mere chance and he’d take it. Keane knew he’d done that that night and no one was surprised when, within seconds, Mark Bosnich was picking the ball out of the United net.
I’m not sitting here pretending Batistuta would make it into anyone’s all-time 11. I’m sure, for many, he’d struggle to make it into your top 10 strikers of all time. But for me, he was the ultimate striker. The number 9 you could count on. The man so adept at putting the ball in the net, you wondered if he was actually part human, part machine. Whatever he was, Batistuta made it work. A true striker if ever there was one – and the like of which you rarely see.