Players like Gabriel Batistuta, who will take part in the ICONS of Football 2017 golf tournament this summer, belong to a bygone era; once reluctant to even play football competitively, he’s now remembered as one of the greatest cult heroes in the history of Serie A. Cult heroism usually suggests an underappreciated industriousness that rises to acclaim over a long period of time, but Batistuta was a different kind – he was pure class, world-class, but placed loyalty to his club and supporters above the modern-day lust for fortune and silverware.
No doubt, Batistuta wanted to win titles. But to put it into his own words, a title with Fiorentina was worth ten times more to him than one with Milan or Juventus. That’s where the Argentine spent the majority of his career after emerging as one of his country’s finest young talents throughout spells with Newell’s Old Boys, River Plate and Boca Juniors. He quickly established himself as one of the top strikers in Serie A and European football, but rejected regular advances from Manchester United and Real Madrid to stay with Viola – even when they suffered relegation to the second-tier in 1993.
Seven years later, when Batistuta finally left for Roma at the age of 31, he’d fired Fiorentina to the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana, become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer – the first hat-trick of his 207-goal haul was scored 22 years ago today – and had emerged as such an inspirational figure that fans built a life-size bronze statue of him in front of one of the stands at Stadio Artemio Franchi.
Batistuta won the league title with Roma, scoring 20 goals during his debut season, a symbolic reward of the quality he’d shown throughout his career – it almost felt like an honorary gesture from the footballing gods. After that, his career took him farther afield. After his time with Giallorossi, which included a loan spell at Inter, he ended his career with Al-Arabi in Qatar – setting a new record of 25 goals scored in a single campaign.
However, it wasn’t just in Italy where Batistuta’s presence was felt. Similar heroics for Argentina gave him the platform for worldwide acclaim, which he duly took at three World Cups. Although none of the tournaments were particularly successful for Albiceleste, never surpassing the quarter-finals, Batistuta scored ten goals in 12 appearances and is still the only player in the competition’s history to score hat-tricks at consecutive tournaments.
But in a way, it was Fiorentina and Argentina’s limitations that made Batistuta so iconic, his ability to defy them through his passion and talent. Rather than record transfer fees, millionaire salaries and trophies, Batitstuta wanted to be a champion of the people – of his own people – and wanted to become one on his own terms.
It may seem a romanticised reflection of Batitstuta’s career, but it’s also the reason Rest of the World captain Darren Clarke identified the South American as the player he’s most looking forward to working with at ICONS of Football this summer, hosted at The Belfry from 23rd-25th June. Whilst talent is undeniably important, ROTW will need heroes to overcome a talented England side boasting home advantage – Batistuta is certainly one of those.