Discussing the fiercest rivalries amongst football fans is a fruitless task; every supporter thinks their neighbourly duel with the club down the road is as bitter as they come. What one can’t debate, however, is that the conflict between Boca Juniors and River Plate sits at the very top table. Arson, chickens, pigs, and a stampede that killed 71 Boca fans viscerally displays the years of bad blood between the two clubs, ensuring the Superclasico is one of the most feral clashes on the planet.
So when a player turns out for both clubs during their career, known in Argentina as “crossing to the other side of the street”, there is bound to be a level of vitriol from at least one set of fans. For a player to move directly from one side of Buenos Aires to the other is nigh-on unthinkable.
Alfredo Di Stéfano, Julio Olarticochea, and Hugo Gatti have all represented both of Argentina’s premier football clubs, to varying degrees of success and suffering various degrees of animosity from supporters.
Dan Williamson, the author of Blue and Gold Passion – A History of Boca Juniors, recounted the tale of two players who contentiously jumped ship during the 1980s. “Oscar Ruggeri and Ricardo Gareca controversially left Boca Juniors directly for River Plate in the mid-1980s, when the club [Boca] was close to bankruptcy, and the fans haven’t forgiven them to this day. Ruggeri won the league, Copa Libertadores, and Intercontinental Cup with River, as well as the 1986 World Cup.” As expected, neither set of fans are quick to forgive or forget.
Clearly, very few players turn out for both the Xeneizes and Los Millonarios and emerge unscathed; so why, then, is Gabriel Batistuta the exception that proves the rule?
In July 1990, fed up with warming the bench at the Estadio Monumental, Batigol put pen to blue and yellow paper eight miles south. Author of Boca Juniors: A History and Appreciation of Buenos Aires’ Most Successful Fútbol Team, Stephen Brandt, recently spoke of the switch. “[Gabriel Batistuta] is about the only one to come directly over from River Plate and do well for Boca. His move came about because the manager didn’t play him in the right position. He scored against River on his debut, so I’d say he adapted pretty well.”
During a two-year spell in the Argentine capital, Batistuta would evolve from perennial benchwarmer to national superstar, effectively forcing the hand of every major club in Europe to pull the trigger on a multi-million-pound transfer sooner rather than later.
The player that Batigol would become was an obnoxious centre-forward who played with such ferocity and mobility so as never to give defenders a moment’s peace. He would be moulded at La Bombonera before shining in the violet delight of Fiorentina.
Gabriel Batistuta, A Textbook Number 9
Gabriel Batistuta was the kind of forward who had the ability to leave such an enduring mark on the mind of any spectator during the 1990s. Batistuta was the ultimate number 9. His mere presence on the team-sheet was enough to give his team an edge over their opponents before kick-off. When you watch footage of his performances at Fiorentina and Roma, he left defenders petrified and constantly anxious.
Batistuta had this innate ability to ruin your day. The arrogance to walk into your yard, your house, your ground, and take complete control. Prime examples include his strike against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in 1996 before pressing his fingers to his lips and shushing the partizan Catalan crowd upon smashing in an equaliser. His terrorisation of Arsenal’s David Seaman and Nigel Winterburn at Wembley in 1999, a game that effectively ended the Gunners’ European campaign. Whether he finished from 6 yards, 18 yards, or 35 yards, every goal Batistuta dealt was a hammer-blow to the opposition.
His finishing ability was a curious concoction of precision and power that is a rarity among strikers. Catapults, canons, and trebuchets would struggle to release the ball with the same ferocity as Batistuta’s right foot. With each frightful finish, he’d find spaces in the net just out of the goalkeeper’s reach. The contrast between the power, pace, precision of his body, and the erraticness of his long, wavy hair meant there was a sense of controlled chaos about Gabriel Batistuta. Measured disarray. Hyperactive and always on his toes, Gabriel Batistuta oozed restlessness.
In order to reach the stage at which he blossomed in Florence, Batigol had to lay the foundations in his homeland of Argentina.
A young Marcelo Bielsa, busy carving his own legacy and who would later go on to coach Batistuta at international level, handed a teenage Gabriel Batistuta his debut for Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario. Struggling to come to terms with big city life after leaving behind his hometown of Avellaneda, Batistuta found the net just three times in sixteen league appearances, faring slightly better in the Copa Libertadores with a return of five in three. Farmed out on loan at the end of the season to capital-based lower league side Deportivo Italiano, Batigol found goals much easier to come by.
He shone during his first taste of life in Buenos Aires, helping his new team to sail through the group stages of the Carnevale Cup, also known as the Torneo di Viareggio, a youth football tournament held annually in Tuscany, Italy. Batistuta would finish the tournament as top scorer before falling in the knockout stages to eventual winners Torino.
His exploits for the Buenos Aires minnows earned him a move to the salubrious district of Nunez, and the chance to adorn the distinguished red sash of River Plate. Although a lifelong Boca fan, Batistuta understood that this was a fantastic chance to make his mark in the Argentinian top-flight, and take the next step in his career.
The Red Sash
The coach at River during the early 1990s was 1978 World Cup-winning captain, Argentinian cult hero, and childhood idol of Batistuta himself, Daniel Passarella. What was a chance for a prodigious talent to study under the tutelage of a seasoned veteran, quickly became a nightmare.
Passarella was unimpressed by what he saw in training, labelling Batistuta “erratic” and “lacking discipline”. This fractious relationship would persist long after Passarella and Batistuta left River. Their paths would cross again when Passarella took over the national side in 1994, dropping Batistuta for several qualifiers ahead of the 1998 World Cup
With his manager failing to see the untapped potential in him and denying he was a good enough goalscorer, Batistuta spent much of his solitary season at the Belgrano club warming the substitutes bench.
Faced with a fork in the road, instead of accepting his place on the periphery of the starting XI, Gabriel Batistuta used his time at River to train excessively; to hone his craft, using the pain of watching on from the sidelines as ammunition in his efforts to become the textbook number 9 seen at Fiorentina and Roma. After twelve months, seven appearances, and five goals, a reasonable return considering the circumstances. It was time to move on.
Reflecting on his time at River Plate, Batistuta said, “The best thing that Passarella could have said was that he made a mistake while he coached me at River Plate or that I was a disaster and that I later improved. The people who have always backed me never doubted my abilities. The only one with doubts was Passarella”.
Since the formation of both clubs at the dawn of the 20th century, near the docks of La Boca, many players have turned out for both sides. However, it’s extremely rare for a player to jump ship from one to the other without a brief sojourn in-between.
As Dan Williamson, recently articulated “Although it’s not so common nowadays, you’d be surprised how many players and managers have crossed the divide throughout the history of the rivalry. However, it is rare to cross the divide directly. There has generally tended to be a middle club and a gap of a few years. Or a player has been in the youth set up with one, and not really made a breakthrough, before transferring to the other later down the line.”
This is what makes Batistuta’s decision to trade the red and white for the blue and gold so shocking. To seamlessly move between the two with little to no animosity from either set of fans was, and still is, almost unthinkable.
Batigol arrived at La Bombanera assured of a fair crack of the whip and a chance to lead the line. Initially played out of position under Osvaldo Potente, the arrival of Óscar Tabárez as Boca Juniors head coach saw Batistuta shifted forward into the focal point of a new look Boca attack. Under a head coach who understood his potential, Gabriel Batistuta’s goals propelled Boca to the Clausura title and a place in Argentina’s Copa American 1991 squad.
Decisive finishes against Chile, Colombia and Brazil led Argentina to their first Copa America triumph in over 30 years, with Batistuta ending the tournament as top goalscorer.
Copa America Delights
Where playing time was hard to find on one side of the capital, El Ángel Gabriel grasped the opportunity to shine on the other. Batistuta holds his time with Boca close to his heart. He has shared numerous times how he felt a genuine connection with the fans. For him, that was the true meaning of professional football. To hold the ability to excite spectators, for fans to adore, and to be a part of a team the masses remember for generations.
Outside of club football, Batistuta’s exploits for the national side are what endear him to the Argentine public.
“Batistuta is fondly thought of by all fans of Argentine football. Don’t forget he was the national team’s leading goalscorer – with 54 goals in 77 caps – until he was surpassed by Lionel Messi in 2016. He represented La Albiceleste in three World Cups and won the Copa America twice. The last one, in 1993, was the last senior tournament Argentina won. So he’s a hero.” expressed Dan Williamson when contacted for this article.
Similar to the likes of Roberto Baggio, in that performances for the national side have supplanted any existing club rivalries and ensured very little hostility from rival supporters. Batistuta’s success in the sky blue and white outweigh any residual acrimony or animosity from his move across Buenos Aires.
Peter Coates, Editor In Chief at golazoargentino.com, summed up the feelings in South America succinctly. “Given his status with the national team and the fact that the majority of his career was in spent Europe, he’s not really considered a hero at any particular club in Argentina. He is pretty revered by all Argentinian supporters.’
Major honours proved difficult to come by in the Argentinian capital for Batistuta, a somewhat recurring motif during his storied career. Despite his reasonably meagre trophy cabinet comparative to the player he became, Batistuta felt fulfilled through his ability to excite fans through scintillating play. Eye-catching displays during his single season at Boca Juniors provided enough fuel for Fiorentina to ignite their interest in the 22-year-old and lure the striker to Italy where he would play his best football over a twelve-year period.
Batistuta himself was eager for a fresh start and an opportunity to introduce the world to the phenomenon of Batigol. After a year apiece at Newell’s, River and Boca, it was time to unleash the beast on the defences of Serie A.
Very few players have the pleasure of universal acclaim from two sets of rival supporters after taking the field for both. Barcelona natives loath Luis Figo. Carlos Tevez signalled a new dawn in Manchester with the erection of a giant blue billboard, and with it demolished any lingering compassion from the red side of the city. Sol Campbell is a Judas after leaving mediocrity at Tottenham for success at Arsenal.
The circumstances surrounding Gabriel Batistuta and his move from River Plate to Boca Juniors, coupled with an impressive goalscoring record for his country, ensured he was able to cross the street with his reputation intact.
Words by Liam Baxter – @liambxtr