The great champions are not like you or I. They don't seem to feel pressure or, if they do, they know how to handle it better than the rest of us. And few could cope better with the nerve-jangling demands of Serie A in the 1990s than Gabriel Omar Batistuta.
His masterclass in keeping your cool came exactly 20 years ago this season. He found the net for Fiorentina in the opening game of that 1994-95 season against Cagliari and then just kept on scoring. By the time he finished, he had set a record for finding the net in consecutive games in Italy's top division, which stands to this day. Few could question his credentials as one of the finest - if not the finest - strikers in the world.
The incredible run started at the Stadio Artemio Franchi against a stubborn Sardinian side. The Viola took the lead via a header from the Argentinean which was turned into his own net by visiting defender Nicolo' Napoli. Nowadays, it might even have been credited to Batigol but there was no such generosity back then. And when Cagliari equalised from the penalty spot with 15 minutes to go it looked like being a frustrating opening day for Claudio Ranieri's side. But the manager, and his prolific forward, had other ideas.
Out came Ciccio Baiano and in went local boy Francesco Flachi and the ardent Fiorentina fan played a part in turning the game. He provided the assist that Batistuta happily thumped into the back of the net past Valerio Fiori after getting the ball out of his feet. With 10 minutes left to play, it proved to be the matchwinner and the beginning of an epic achievement.
At first, of course, nobody had the record in mind. He found the net away to Genoa in Week 2 and grabbed a double at home to Cremonese the following weekend. A consolation strike in a 3-1 away defeat at Inter - which included that collector's item, a goal from Darko Pancev - was followed by a hit which gave the Viola a share of the points with Lazio in Florence. Five games out of five and tongues began wagging a little. Might Ezio Pascutti's record of 10 consecutive goalscoring matches dating back more than 30 years finally be under threat?
The Bologna hitman set that mark back in 1962-63 with a sequence which also began, coincidentally, on the opening day of the campaign. His goalscoring rush put the Rossoblu into a three-way Scudetto fight with Juventus and Spal from Ferrara although they would eventually fade away to finish fourth. Highlight of his achievement was a hat-trick in the 7-1 thrashing of local rivals Modena. Injury would ultimately bring his run to an end as he was unable to play against Sampdoria in the 11th week of the campaign. Who knows how much further he might have extended his run without that blow?
But it still set a mark which would stand for more than three decades and also brought Pascutti back into the headlines as Batistuta closed in on his milestone. It took a penalty away to Reggiana to keep the run going in Week 6 and another in the 4-1 thumping of Padova in the following round. The former Boca Juniors forward then opened the scoring in a 4-2 goal-feast away to Brescia before another penalty at home to Bari brought him to within one game of matching his predecessor. A trip to a struggling Napoli side under Vujadin Boskov at the San Paolo would decide whether he could enter the record books or not.
For those of us keeping track of his progress from the sidelines, the tension was unbearable. If Fiorentina scored, we thought, it would probably be Bati. But could he keep finding the net as the media coverage of his potential achievements grew? The Viola were just a couple of points behind Parma at the top of the table but it would be fair to say that thoughts of the striker making history started to risk eclipsing any team performance. It was not enough to win any more - it had to provide a goal for the Argentinean too.
That game with the Partenopei turned out to be goal-packed but the man of the moment made his followers suffer. An own goal from Andre Cruz gave the visitors the lead before the ‘Condor’, Massimo Agostini, struck twice in the second half to turn the game on its head. Then, incredibly, a second own goal put the sides level - this time through Fabio Cannavaro. But it was a swinging arm from Roberto Policano towards Anselmo Robbiati which would probably be the game’s most important act. It cost him a red card and Fiorentina punished his team with Sandro Cois giving them the lead once more with less than 10 minutes left to play. Time was running out for the would-be record-matcher.
So he took matters into his own hands, having had little or no service all day. In typical style he seized possession on the edge of the Napoli box and thumped a shot goalwards. It sneaked in at the far post and he dashed towards the corner flag to celebrate. Another penalty converted in the closing stages was the icing on the cake.
“My teammates did something really nice,” he revealed to reporters post-match. “They started singing ‘Batigol! Batigol!’ That has never happened to me, I couldn’t hold back the tears.”
The papers, too, would praise him. “This is an important record for the 25-year-old Argentinean who was once described by Omar Sivori as mediocre,” wrote La Stampa. “Batistuta is one of the best strikers in circulation at the moment. He is one of the few players who can really make a difference - especially when he learns to take all the chances that come his way.”
And so eyes switched back to Florence and the visit of Sampdoria, which could see him break the record. Once again, he would tease us all by allowing someone else to score first. David Platt gave the visitors the lead in the first half from the penalty spot but then, with about an hour gone, came the moment which had the fans in the ground and around the world holding their breath. Another spot-kick was given, this time to the Viola. In truth, it looked like Daniele Carnasciali went down under the slightest touch from Sinisa Mihajlovic but nobody on the Curva Fiesole was complaining.
The moments between the award and the penalty seemed to last an eternity. But Batigol only had one option in his mind and that was to drive the ball powerfully up the middle of the goal towards Walter Zenga. If he wants to get in the way, he seemed to reason, good luck to him. And it proved to be valid logic as the ball lifted the back of the net and the celebrations could begin in style. The game finished 2-2 thanks to a Batigol shot deflected into his own net by Pietro Vierchowod and a Ruud Gullit header, but the talk was all about the new record.
“The record is all mine but some of the credit has to go to the team,” said the man himself. “Now I am part of history. I am sorry for Pascutti that I beat his record with a penalty.”
The run would end the following week in Turin in another famous game. Fiorentina took a two goal lead away to Juventus before two goals from Gianluca Vialli and a peach of a winner from a youngster named Alessandro Del Piero turned the game around. It was a bitter way for an amazing sequence to end but it did nothing to dent the scale of the achievement. The record for scoring in consecutive Serie A games still stands.
“This record puts me into the history books of Italian football,” Batistuta told reporters at the time. “Maybe in 20 years time you’ll come and look for me on my farm in Reconquista and ask me about a new Batistuta trying to beat my record.” But, for the time being at least, nobody has come close to sending the media scrambling for his phone number in their contacts books.
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