The 1996-7 season wasn’t a great one for Fiorentina and led to the sacking of manager Claudio Ranieri. Gabriel Batistuta scored just 13 goals, the lowest total of his Viola career, and the team slumped to a 9th-place finish, despite the presence of Batigol, Rui Costa, and Francesco Toldo. However, they did reach the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup—the brilliantly-named predecessor to the Europa League—where they eventually lost to Barcelona by an aggregate score of 3-1 across two legs.
The Blaugranas that year were a formidable group; they’d go on to win both the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Copa del Rey. The side featured a veritable who’s who of 90s football: Ronaldo, Luís Figo, Hristo Stoichkov, Gheorghe Popescu, Laurent Blanc, Josep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Juan Antonio Pizzi, Sergi Barjuán, Albert Ferrer, and Giovanni are the names that jump out, but the roster has quality everywhere. They crushed Red Star Belgrade and AIK Solna to reach the quarterfinals, where they met Fiorentina, who’d slipped past Gloria Bistrița, Sparta Prague, and Benfica.
The first leg was at the Camp Nou, and Barcelona were heavily favored at their own ground. With 105,000 screaming fans, the match kicked off, but it was the Tuscans who took the early initiative as Batistuta lanced a shot wide of Vítor Baía’s post off a pass from Rui Costa. While fans may have anticipated a clash of the two best number 9s in the world, it was all BatiGol: a header just wide from a Michele Serena cross, then a run at the back post for a cross that was centimeters too long. It was defender Miguel Ángel Nadal, though, who headed home a free kick just before the half to hand the hosts the lead. Despite the warning signs from the purple gunner, Barca manager Bobby Robson must have felt that things were going more or less according to script.
That all changed just after the hour mark, as Batistuta latched onto a ball on the left side of the Barcelona area after losing Oscar García. The Spaniard tried to recover, but it was too late; the Argentine took a touch to set himself up and lashed a right-footed half-volley directly over Baía’s head. The Portuguese goalkeeper got a finger to it, but, in typical Batigol fashion, the shot was simply too powerful to stop and cannoned into the back of the net. Instead of unleashing his usual machine gun celebration, the legend put a finger to his lips and spun in circles in the midst of his jubilant teammates.
Although Barcelona pressed forward and nearly retook the lead through Ronaldo, the Blaugranas were thrilled the match ended when it did, as Batistuta had just put Luís Oliveira through on goal when German referee Hans-Georg Fuellbrunn blew full time. The result was one of the biggest upsets in football that year, even though Barcelona won 0-2 at the Franchi to advance to the final.
That does nothing to take away from the team’s stunner in the Camp Nou, or from the genius of Gabriel Omar Batistuta. 21 years later, the goal is still an absolute peach, and you can still feel the astonishment of the Catalans: a sudden silence as the nylon ripples, then an explosion of cheering, as even the home fans applauded a truly magnificent strike. Like so much in this club’s history, it was meaningless in terms of silverware, but was, and is, absolutely worth celebrating. Have a look at the video below for the full match highlights.