Football: Batistuta on route towards golden future

Recalled to the national side, Argentina's main striker is ready to use the platform to show his wares. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
IN ONE respect at least you can see why Alex Ferguson sees Gabriel Batistuta as a replacement for Eric Cantona. Ask the Argentine a potentially tricky question and his understanding disappears. "I'm sorry," he says, shrugging his shoulders in a manner familiar to Manchester United of seasons past, "my English is not very good."

For two years now, rumours have circulated that Batistuta, 29, is Old Trafford bound, a testament to his fluency on the pitch. Make that the football equivalent of multi-lingual, because the man evades markers with the same facility he dodges questions.

Cantona was a playmaker-cum-striker, Batistuta does not worry about creation. Destruction is his thing, scoring goals at the rate of more than 20 a season in Italy's Serie A for Fiorentina. Add more than 40 for his country, Argentina, and you can see why claims about Alan Shearer's place at the apex of the world's strikers are greeted with some scepticism, even in parts of South America that do not pay homage to Ronaldo.

Against the Republic of Ireland in April, it was clear that Batistuta had the word "friendly" foremost in his mind. He barely bothered to run, yet he scored a goal with a delicate touch at the near-post, hit the woodwork and was thwarted on another run only by Shay Given's brave save. A hat- trick would not have been out of the question by any means, something he achieved last month against Bosnia. Imagine what he might have done if he had been really trying.

If Batistuta plays, he normally scores, which puts Argentina in a privileged position compared to other leading sides - France spring immediately to mind - who have a wonderfully creative core but are not blessed with seasoned and natural strikers. The rider being, if Batistuta actually plays.

For nearly a year, Daniel Passarella, the national coach, dispensed with Batistuta's services, saying: "If he wants to play in the World Cup, he must learn the way my Argentina plays." That involves one centre-forward with several others joining in support, seemingly a perfect role for Batistuta but one that only recently seems to have landed in his lap ahead of Parma's Hernan Crespo.

For months a great deal of pouting and posturing went on but, going into France 98, bridges have been rebuilt and coach and player are reading from the same script. A problem? "Absolutely not," Batistuta replied. "I'm not against the press, but those stories are not real. I can't say why I wasn't in the team for nine months. Perhaps the manager thought another striker was playing better than me."

Passarella added: "Other players didn't play too, but because Batistuta is well known it was noticed. When he didn't play it was for tactical reasons, nothing more. There were rumours of a rift between us but that never existed. My relationship with him is exactly the same as with the other players."

Hmmm. Spend time with Batistuta and you hear what he hopes will be best received. To Argentina he says he wants to return to his South American cattle ranch when his contract with Fiorentina ends in June 2000; in Italy he wants to stay there. The British version? What you would expect, really.

"I would like to go to England but I don't know," he said. "There are various teams that interest me, but the most important thing for me would be that they would allow me to fight for the championship. Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal, no problem, they are all very good. In two or three years, it is a possibility.

"Manchester United contacted me last year and it wasn't a question of money why I stayed. Fiorentina pay me well. It's simply that Fiorentina could not sell me. The reaction of the fans would have been too angry."

Bull is not exclusive to Batistuta's farming interests but within those sentences are many grains of truth. When Roberto Baggio was sold for pounds 8m in the 1980s there were riots in Florence - something that would almost certainly be repeated if "Batigol" was transferred - and, at a reported pounds 2m a year, he is second in Italy only to Ronaldo (pounds 3m) in terms of wages.

Yet Batistuta has been frustrated by Fiorentina's repeated failure to win anything of substance and the lack of a suitable stage in Europe has irked him in the past. "I was happy for Ronaldo," he said after the Brazilian became World Player of the Year, "but I still don't know what the criteria is to win the award."

The World Cup provides him with a platform to set his own parameters and, despite repeated denials from Fiorentina that they would let him go, there is a suspicion that Batistuta will be performing not only for Argentina in France but also for his own future.

The stories linking him to Manchester United will only fade away if he goes elsewhere, probably to either of the Milan clubs. But if he does want to come to this country then the opportunity to show his wares could be upon him soon. If England qualify for the second phase, Argentina could be their opponents.