It was twenty years ago, November 26th 2000, when Gabriel Batistuta, the man we all know as Batigol, struck a stunning half volley into Francesco Toldo’s net, and a knife in the heart of Fiorentina fans.
A player that had once been idolized and adored in Florence like few others, for nine years. Batistuta’s final game in the Fiorentina jersey, in front of his adoring home fans, came six months before the game at the Olimpico when he would face his old team-mates. Against an already relegated Venezia side, and needing two goals to equal Kurt Hamrin’s record, Batistuta went one better, and with a hat-trick, it was the perfect farewell.
After that final game of the season, Batistuta made his announcement that he wanted to leave, and left nobody in any doubt as to the reason, Vittorio Cecchi Gori. “The fact is that myself and the club directors see things in a completely different way. I have officially asked the club to be sold. Cecchi Gori told me that he has plans but I can’t believe him anymore”. He was not the only one, as manager Giovanni Trapattoni would also have left the club by the time the next season came around. Cecchi Gori claimed that he didn’t want to lose the player but he could no longer keep him at the club against his will. He also spoke of how he wanted to give Trapattoni the strongest squad possible and would support him so that the manager would only need to concentrate on the football side of things. Trap like Bati had heard enough of Cecchi Gori’s false promises.
Massimo Moratti, the Inter owner, had been chasing the Argentine since 1995, and Batistuta himself had made a half promise to him that if he ever did leave Fiorentina, he would go to Inter. In the end though, despite the players agent preferring the Inter option, both Batistuta, and Cecchi Gori were more tempted by Roma’s offer. Roma manager Fabio Capello, along with most of his players, were more than happy when it started to look very likely that he would be coming to the capital. There was one Roma player though who didn’t seem quite as thrilled by the thought of having to share the stage with Batigol.
Vincenzo Montella, already having some difficulties with the club, was not about to give up his number 9 jersey to the Argentine striker. “If I stay, I’ll be keeping it”. When asked if Batistuta would become the new leader of the club, he certainly made his doubts known “If he comes, he’ll have to prove that on the pitch. In Florence, the Argentine definitely was, but this doesn’t mean that he won’t have to prove it here if he plays with us next year”
Montella would start this game on the subs bench, as the number 18, Batistuta, proved just why Roma had been prepared to fork out 36 million for a player over thirty years of age. When he made known his intention to leave Fiorentina he also spoke of what a difficult decision it was “I swear I haven’t slept for months, because for me, leaving these fans and this city is very painful.” Speaking about those fans he had only one wish “Of the fans I only ask them to understand me, and if I do return as an ex, to greet me with all of their love”
There was some division amongst fans on just how he should be greeted at the Olimpico in this his first game against his old club. There were calls for an ex player to get the usual treatment, boos and whistles at every touch, others feigned indifference, claiming he should just be ignored. For the most part though, the fans wanted to applaud him, to show him just how much he had meant to both them and the club. In the build up to the game, ticket sales were higher than usual for what was an away game to be played late on a Sunday evening. 3,000 fans would make the trip, and with Fiorentina in mid table, the only reason to explain this was that man, Gabriel Batistuta.
The heads of the Collettivo group of ultras agreed that because of the difference in opinion between fans on how to greet their ex idol, nothing specific would be planned. They did however release a statement that they would only be applauding the player. They admitted though that if the game went well for Fiorentina it would make it easier to be generous, if on the other hand they were to lose because of a Batistuta goal, things may be a little different.
For his part, Batistuta had said before the game that if he did score, he would not be celebrating, and a part of him must have been hoping that it wouldn’t have to come to that. In the end, he remained true to his word. Before the game, he went to the corner of the stadium where the Fiorentina fans were placed, and surrounded by photographers he saluted his old fans who in turn greeted him with warm applause. On the pitch there were embraces for his former team-mates, Rui Costa and goalkeeper Francesco Toldo.
In the days leading up to the big game, Toldo had let his feelings be known “If I have to concede a goal at Roma, at least let it not be Batistuta that scores”. More recently however, in the documentary on Gabriel Batistuta, El Numero Nueve, speaking alongside his friend he admitted that he was happy in the end that it was Bati that had scored and that he finally managed to fulfil his dream of winning the Scudetto.
Batistuta hadn’t taken part in the midweek UEFA Cup game against Hamburg here at the Olimpico, instead following the match from the stands. Capello had claimed that he wasn’t fully fit, but when Bati was asked for his version he replied that he had been feeling 100% and prepared to play, and if they wanted to know the reason he wasn’t they should ask the Roma manager.
All that had been forgotten though by 8:30 pm on the Sunday night, Batistuta’s head, and heart no doubt, filled with mixed feelings on lining up against his old club, his ex team-mates and his former fans. With the game still scoreless and just seven minutes remaining, and after Batistuta had not been given an easy time by his old team mates, especially Tomáš Řepka, he showed just why Roma had pinned their hopes on winning the league title on their new star. Gianni Guigou’s headed pass dropped in front of Gabriel Batistuta, and as he let it bounce, we can only imagine that there can’t have been enough time for him to think about the significance of this shot. When he let fly with that powerful right foot, for someone like him it can only be a natural instinct, the will above all else to just see the ball crash against the back of the net.
As he became submerged by his new team-mates, celebrating what they saw as another step toward that Scudetto dream, only then was he hit by those emotions, as he realised just who he had scored against. After the game he admitted that he would have preferred to win without having to score.
“It’s been an evening of mixed emotions, I’m happy for Roma but sad for Fiorentina. I know that my old fans will return home disappointed but I think they will have understood the situation. It’s pointless that I try to describe what I felt, it’s something personal. But I hope that the Fiorentina fans understood. Before entering the pitch I didn’t have any plans on how to react if I scored. After the goal, feeling the embraces of my team-mates, I though about the Viola followers and their emotions, which were also mine. I spent nine years in Florence, I bore three sons there, these are things that can never be erased”.
Something else that can’t be erased are all the great memories that Fiorentina fans have of their idol. There are some memories, even the saddest ones, that will always remain, and this goal for Roma is one that Fiorentina followers and Gabriel Batistuta himself will never forget, even if they wanted to.