This article was first featured in Issue 6 of the Box To Box magazine on the Assorted History of the World Cup with words by Chloe Beresford and accompanying illustration from Steve Bushell.
It was a long way from the trademark machine gun celebration. Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta looked a forlorn figure as he sat in tears with his head down following a 1-0 loss to England in the 2002 World Cup. David Beckham’s penalty that famously exorcised his demons from 1998 was enough to secure a victory for the Three Lions, a result that contributed to sending the Albiceleste home before the knockout rounds had even begun for the first time in 40 years.
The following match was a 1-1 draw with Sweden and was the last time “Batigol” would ever play for his national team. Despite twice lifting the Copa America it was a sad way to end a career in which – much like his time with Fiorentina – would see him keep his end of the bargain with plenty of goals, but with ultimately nothing to show for it on the World Cup stage. “The time is over and the pain is twice as bad,” revealed a tearful Batistuta after he announced his international retirement.
“I dreamed of a different ending.
“I will never watch this match again,” he continued. “I do not need to see it again to know that we could have made it through without any problems in this group. We did everything we possibly could, there was nothing left inside of us. We feel for the people of Argentina, it was very close and being unable to repay the debt to them makes us feel bad.”
At club level, Batistuta remained with Fiorentina for nine years, even in the face of interest from some of the world’s biggest sides. He would eventually move on in order to win the Scudetto with Roma, a prize that even supporters in Florence could not begrudge of this most deserving player. Yet international football was where he was supposed to do well, the Argentina national side having won the tournament in both 1978 and 1986.
Batistuta was clearly a victim of his time, but that would not stop him from doing everything in his power to propel his side to glory. Having stayed with Fiorentina alongside boss Claudio Ranieri following their relegation to Serie B in 1993/94, Batistuta helped the Viola back into the Italian top flight at the first time of asking. He would be rewarded with a place in the Argentina squad for the USA 1994 tournament, one in which the Albiceleste would initially do well.
The deadly striker would fire in a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of Greece in the opening fixture, a truly appropriate way to start his World Cup career. Wins over Nigeria and Bulgaria would follow, however they would crash at the first time of asking versus Romania in the knockout stages. Yet Batistuta walked away with his head held high, having fired in four goals in as many games in his maiden attempt.
In France four years later, a 29-year-old Batigol was in the peak of his career, having scored 24 goals in all competitions for the Viola that season. Argentina would win all three group games without conceding a single goal, their striker Batistuta totally dominant versus Japan as he fired in three in ten-minute spell during the second half. This would see him become one of only four players to have ever scored two World Cup hat-tricks, and the first player ever to have done so in consecutive tournaments.
They would, of course, face England in the first knockout match following that Group H triumph, Batistuta instrumental in one of the most entertaining matches in World Cup history. The Argentina side included a whole host of star players, many of whom played their domestic football alongside the striker in Serie A.
On that famous night in St. Étienne, it was Batistuta who would open the scoring with a fifth-minute penalty, only for Alan Shearer – England’s own spot kick expert – to level the scores just four minutes later. Michael Owen would score a famous goal to put England 2-1 up on 16 minutes, only for Inter’s Javier Zanetti to level things up on the stroke of half time.
David Beckham had already been sent off by the time Batistuta was replaced by Ariel Ortega on 68 minutes, the Argentinians scoring all of their penalties in the ensuing shoot-out as Paul Ince and David Batty missed their spot-kicks for England. That side were surely capable of winning the tournament that year, but lost in the next round to the Netherlands, a 2-1 win for the Oranje courtesy of a beautiful piece of skill from Dennis Bergkamp in the 90th minute.
Four years later saw the aforementioned international retirement of one of the world’s best ever strikers, following Argentina’s premature exit from the so-called ‘group of death’ in 2002. A record total of 56 international goals for the Albiceleste was recently eclipsed by Lionel Messi, but while it took the Barcelona star 110 appearances to surpass him, it must be noted that Batistuta needed just 78 matches to reach that total.
Such a ruthless strike rate was certainly deserving of a World Cup victory, but for Gabriel Batistuta it was simply never meant to be. For us as mere spectators, his play alone was enough that he will forever be etched in our football memories, regardless of whether or not he lifted that famous golden trophy.