France '98: Who Will Wear The Golden Boot?

Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta is one of the favourites to be highest scorer. Andrew Longmore assesses his skills
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ONLY one man seemed at ease in the bar which doubled as a press centre at Lansdowne Road and no one needed X-ray eyes to spot him. He stood there, exaggeratedly cool, B-movie handsome, parrying questions in English with the practised air of a political veteran. The tabloids were in attendance to put some meat to the bones of a story about Gabriel Batistuta joining Manchester United. Batistuta knew the game gave just enough credence for a flash headline or two - just in case - while deep- down aware that no club in England could afford the wages he would be asking. "Enough to buy four Argentinian towns," Roy Hodgson, the manager of Blackburn, said. Blackburn were linked to Batistuta, presumably on the grounds that Hodgson once managed Internazionale and speaks Italian.

"He'd be looking to break the pounds 2m-a-year barrier and no English club could manage that," he said. "I'd love to have him." The sentence trailed off. "Inter, Parma, Juve and Milan, they might be able to afford him. That's about it." Barcelona too. Parma are hot favourites at present. The Parma president, Calisto Tanzi, recently provided a private plane to fly the Argentinian from Sao Paulo to Italy to shoot a commercial for Parmalat, the club sponsors. Alberto Malesani, the former coach of Fiorentina, where "Batigol" is as revered as the Duomo, has now moved to Parma; Giovanni Trapattoni, not Batistuta's sort of coach, has taken over at Fiorentina. Two plus two equals pounds 2m a year, though selling their "city emblem", as Cecchi Gorri, the Fiorentina president, calls him, to a rival club in Serie A would be a brave move verging on the suicidal.

Batistuta himself is playing hard to get. At the age of 29 and with a bright, young, Argentinian side emerging as one of the dark horses of the World Cup, his stock is set to rise with the temperatures this month in France. Having settled his differences with Daniel Passarella, the authoritarian coach of the national side, Batistuta has run into a lucrative vein of goalscoring form in the weeks before Argentina's opening game against Japan in Toulouse next Sunday. He scored the first of Argentina's two in a casual unpicking of a young Republic of Ireland side in Dublin, a hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of Bosnia and the winner against Chile, his 42nd goal in 56 internationals, a record not even the Hand of God can touch.

In Ireland, Batistuta barely broke sweat, but gave the two centre-backs, Gary Breen and Ian Harte, such an uncomfortable evening one was substituted at half-time and the other should have been. His goal - and the flying header against Chile - bore all the trademarks of the instinctive striker. A quick break down the left by the incisive Claudio Lopez, a low cross to the near post, a swift shuffle of the feet and a shot guided into the far corner.

Fans of La Viola will yawn at such mundane feats and tell you about real goals, drilled in from every angle with that trusted right foot. In seven seasons and 210 games in Serie A since his transfer from Boca Juniors, Batistuta has scored 124 goals, including an unprecedented run of 15 in 11 straight scoring games at the start of the 1994-95 season. Last season, his total of 21 was considered merely average. His tally in the 1994 World Cup was four in four before the expulsion of Diego Maradona and a shock defeat by Romania. "He's got all the qualities of a great centre-forward," Hodgson says. "He's technically good, he's very aggressive, good in the air and he likes to get the ball to feet, turn and run at defenders. The only criticism I have is that he tends to take life a bit easy sometimes when it suits him."

The nonchalance reflects Batistuta's attitude to his profession. Had he been born into a more prosperous family, Gabriel Batistuta might have pursued his medical studies and become a surgeon rather than a dissector of defences. From Santa Fe in the north-east of Argentina, the most inland working port in the world, Batistuta was 18 before he joined Newell's Old Boys in the neighbouring town of Rosario. Studying medicine did not pay the bills; football did. He made his debut a year later in a 1-0 away defeat by San Martin, hardly a distinguished start to his career.

Further moves to River Plate, then to Boca Juniors preceded a largely unheralded transfer across the Atlantic to Fiorentina where the real attraction was his striking partner, Diego Lattore. The "Good Diego" as Argentina's El Grafico magazine dubbed him. Batistuta was the make-weight. A barren first six months in Italy did little to change the initial assessment. "Only the boys on the Curva Fiesole [where the most passionate of the Fiorentina fans stand] believed in me during those difficult months," Batistuta said. The jackpot has been ringing in repayment ever since.

Quite what tortuous calculation led Passarella to believe Argentina would be a better side without Batistuta can only be a matter of speculation. The 1978 World Cup-winning captain has maintained his uncompromising reputation and a spat after the 1-1 draw with Chile in a World Cup qualifier two years ago led to a lengthy cold war between the two as Passarella relied on Hernan Crespo, Lopez and Ariel Ortega to see Argentina through to France. Passarella cited "tactical reasons" for the 10-game absence; the press thought it was tonsorial.

Batistuta was considered a little too beatnik for the crew-cut post-Diego generation. But it is inconceivable that Passarella will extend his principles into this campaign, particularly as he is committed to an attacking 3- 4-3 formation tailored to Batistuta's goalmouth instincts. The smart money is on a fitting of the golden boot to the treasured right foot of "Batigol". The only chance then of keeping him in Florence would involve a gilt frame and a space on the wall of the Uffizi Gallery.


Alan Shearer (England)

Last season Shearer was Newcastle's top scorer with 31. This season he topped the chart with seven. He has endured a drought of chances as the parched, unemployed predator for Kenny Dalglish's side. If his international colleagues provide him with a supply-line in France, it could be Euro 96 revisited for the pounds 15m man when, without an England goal for 20 months, he finished top marksman.

Oliver Bierhoff (Germany)

The Golden Boot of France 98 could be destined for the man who scored the golden goal of Euro 96. Bierhoff has not looked back since the night he rose from the Wembley bench to sink the Czech Republic. Having finished this season with 27 goals, the highest tally in Serie A since 1961, the 30-year-old has earned a four-year contract with Milan in a pounds 7.5m move from Udinese. After leaving Borussia Monchengladbach, initially for Austria Salzburg, he has in seven seasons in Italy become Germany's finishing article.

Predrag Mijatovic (Yugoslavia)

Fresh from securing the European Cup for Real Madrid, Mijatovic offers unbridled confidence to his team-mates: "We think we're among the best two or three teams who will be in France," said the 29-year-old Montenegrin. If they can live up to their own expectations, the man who finished the qualifying campaign with 14 goals from 12 matches has every chance of making 1998 an unforgettable year.

Marcelo Salas (Chile)

They call him "The Matador", and Salas has certainly made a killing since his winner against England in February. His stock rose with immediate effect, pricing Manchester United out of the market. The bidding stopped at pounds 13m, the fee paid to Argentina's River Plate by Italy's Lazio for the Chilean. Salas has already made an impressive mark in the competition. He scored 11 of his country's qualifying goals.

Fernando Morientes (Spain)

Real Madrid bought Morientes from Zaragoza last summer as long-term understudy for Davor Suker. Instead, the 22-year-old has emerged ahead of Suker and he displaced Raul as the darling of Spanish football after scoring twice in his international debut in March. Christian Panucci, Real's Italian right-back, has called him "a young Marco van Basten". Javier Clemente, Spain's coach, looks set to give him his chance in France.

Ronaldo (Brazil)

After the big build-up, the Brazilian wonderboy now has to deliver. With his power, his devastating pace and his predatory instinct, Ronaldo Luiz Nazarro da Lima will very likely emerge as the World Cup's shooting star. At 21, he already has two World Player of the Year awards and, according to Mario Zagallo, room for improvement, too. "He must cover more ground for us," Brazil's coach says of Internazionale's work-shy world beater. Simon Turnbull