Argentina were one of the best international teams in the world for most of the 1990s – and a big part of that was down to Gabriel Batistuta.
Reeling off just a handful of Albiceleste stars from those hallowed years brings it all flooding back: Fernando Redondo, Ariel Ortega and Diego Simeone to name but a few.
But Batistuta was something else. An outrageous mix of pace and power. A striker whose strength manifested itself in bullet headers and blistering strikes from distance.
While his feats for Fiorentina are the stuff of Serie A legend and his later spell with AS Roma brought him the Scudetto his goals so richly deserved, Batigol’s best times came in the blue and white of Argentina.
His return of 54 goals in 77 appearances for Argentina may have since been eclipsed by Lionel Messi, but Batigol was the forward for the big occasion.
Batistuta scored 10 goals across three World Cups. He is one of only four players to score two World Cup hat-tricks and remains the only player to score hat-tricks at two different World Cups.
A two-time Copa America winner, Batigol also twice finished top scorer at the South American competition, with his tally of 13 tournament goals putting him among the all-time greats.
An Albiceleste legend, Batistuta was, more often than not, the first name on the team sheet, with fellow forwards expected to fit in around his talents and fill-in when required.
But this is a celebration of Argentina’s other strikers. The ones who enjoyed considerable success and the others who faded from view or saw their talent go unfulfilled.
The first striker to earn the unfortunate moniker of ‘the new Maradona’, Latorre had more experience than most of living in Batistuta’s shadow.
First partnered together at Boca Juniors, the duo’s dynamic displays earned the pair their call-ups to the 1991 Copa America. It was here that their fortunes began to differ. Though Latorre found the net in a 3-2 win over Peru, Batistuta ended the tournament as top scorer with six goals.
As much a cultured playmaker as he was an out-and-out striker, Latorre was the perfect foil for Batistuta. So, when Fiorentina signed the pair in the summer of 1992, it seemed like the good times would continue in Serie A.
But while Batigol went on to great things, Latorre looked shorn of confidence in Italy.
Constantly compared to Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the time and the man that would replace him in Maradona and Batistuta respectively, the pressure proved too much.
Latorre managed just two appearances for the Viola before being offloaded to Tenerife. Eleven clubs in 11 years followed, with the once-promising Latorre failing to rekindle that long-lost magic and ending up as a mere footnote in the story of Batistuta.
With 35 goals in 64 games of Argentina, Hernan Crespo was no slouch for Argentina.
Yet there is a suspicion that Batistuta robbed Argentina of Crespo at his peak – even if Batigol paved the way for his move to Parma in 1996 when the Italian upstarts were actively seeking the next Batistuta.
Crespo fit the bill: he was fast, tenacious and hardworking, he had the power to match Batistuta and was adept at finishing with his head and both feet. Though he took eight games to score for Parma – breaking his duck with a thunderous volley against Inter Milan – Crespo rarely looked back, hitting double figures for Parma over the next two seasons.
Going into the 1998 World Cup, Crespo had passed every one of his Argentina auditions with flying colours. He scored six for Argentina at the 1996 Olympic Games and even bagged a hat-trick against a talented FR Yugoslavia side ahead of the finals.
Yet he found himself serving as back-up to Batistuta who was simply too good to drop. It would be a different story four years later though.
Batistuta had missed significant chunks of the 2002 qualifying campaign amid a public falling out with manager Marcelo Bielsa. In his absence, Crespo had stepped up, scoring nine goals to help La Albiceleste romp to qualification.
Crespo had begun to outscore Batigol in Serie A too, finishing 2000-01 Capocannoniere and matching Batistuta’s best-ever return of 26 goals in a single Serie A campaign. He was 26 at the time of the 2002 World Cup. Batigol, by contrast, was 33 and coming off the back of a season in which he scored just six goals for AS Roma.
Yet Bielsa favourite experience over youth with Batistuta’s reputation earning him one last stab at securing World Cup immortality. It was nothing short of a disaster.
Subbed on for Batigol in each of Argentina’s three group games, Crespo did get on the scoresheet in Argentina’s must-win final group stage clash with Sweden, but his 88th-minute equaliser proved too little too late.
Bielsa’s lack of faith coupled with Batistuta’s belligerence to his own fading powers robbed the football world of a striker in his pomp. Though Crespo returned as a starter for the 2006 finals, it was never quite the same.
Abel Balbo served as a precursor to Batistuta in Serie A but ended up being usurped by his fellow Argentine despite an impressive scoring tally in the Italian top flight.
For nine straight seasons with Udinese and later AS Roma from 1989 to 1998, Balbo reached double figures for goals. He was an expert finisher, calm under pressure and capable of scoring from almost anywhere.
His tally of 138 Serie A goals stood as the record for a foreign player in the Italian top flight for a time – but then Batigol arrived.
Balbo was brilliant but Batistuta was even better. The 1994-95 season was a case in point as Balbo scored 22 goals for Roma but Batigol scored a record-breaking 26 to take the Capocannoniere crown.
Emerging as a scapegoat for Argentina’s World Cup 1990 defeat to Cameroon, where he missed a string of chances, Balbo was not selected for the 1991 or 1993 Copa America – despite scoring 21 Serie A goals in the 1992-93 campaign.
By the time he finally forced his way back into international contention, it seemed like Argentina would forge ahead with a strike partnership featuring both Balbo and Batistuta with the pair starting up front at the 1994 World Cup and 1995 Copa America.
But a failed Maradona drug test derailed the team and deflating morale at USA ’94 while Argentina’s hopes of a third straight Copa America were torpedoed by a controversial handball goal from Brazil striker Tulio in a controversial quarter-final clash.
By the time France ’98 rolled around, manager Daniel Passarella had switched to a 4-3-3 system that called for two wide forwards and just a single lone striker.
The partnership was dead and there would only be one victor from there with the powerful Batistuta preferred to the slight Balbo, who instead reverted to the bench. He retired later that summer with 11 goals in 37 Argentina games. It should have been more.
The legend of Martin Palermo was forged in Argentina’s domestic game, first with Estudiantes and later, more notably, with Boca Juniors.
Though he endured an indifferent spell in Spain with Villarreal and Betis, where injury and ill-discipline hampered his impact, Palermo retired as Boca’s all-time top scorer and a career total of 249 goals in 592 games.
A contemporary of Batistuta, Palermo had ample opportunities to test his mettle in Serie A with both Lazio and AC Milan pursuing deals for the skilful goal poacher. He opted against a move to Italy, though, either because he was biding his time or confident his club form would be enough.
Though international opportunities were few and far between, the 1999 Copa America offered a chance for Palermo to prove himself the equal of Batigol, who was absent from the tournament, while putting himself in the shop window in the process.
Perhaps the pressure of the situation got to him, but it didn’t seem so at first. Two second-half goals in Argentina’s opening 3-1 win over Ecuador showed off the best of Palermo’s youthful confidence and athletic finishing abilities. Then came Colombia and a performance that defined his international career.
It was a game that saw Palermo enter the Guinness Book of World Records for missing three penalties, the first hitting the crossbar, the second sailing over the bar and the third saved. With Batistuta noted for his impeccable penalty record, each miss felt like another nail in his international coffin. This was his one chance to stake a claim for Argentina and he was blowing it.
Palermo must have thought of Batigol watching on from home, a mixture of confusion and amusement strewn across his face. Though Argentina and Palermo bounced back to triumph 2-0 over Uruguay, with Palermo on the scoresheet, any relief was short-lived.
A meek quarter-final defeat to Brazil, complete with an anonymous performance from Palermo, ensured Batistuta would sleep soundly, knowing his national team spot was safe, while Palermo was left haunted by his own recurring nightmare. His international career was all but over.
The brilliance of Batistuta was both a blessing and a curse for Argentina, particularly in the case of Claudio Lopez.
Lopez was an incredibly versatile striker, capable of playing anywhere across the front-line, either leading the attack or in a supporting role. Known for his pace, technique and dribbling skills, by the time the 1998 World Cup arrived he had added goals to his repertoire.
Arriving in Europe with Valencia back in 1996, Lopez took time to settle in Spain. But the 1997-98 season saw the Argentine hit his stride.
Nicknamed “El Piojo” aka the Louse for his innate ability to torment defenders, over the next three campaigns, Lopez averaged 20 goals a season, playing as part of Los Che’s dynamic front two alongside Miguel Angulo.
Yet the 1998 World Cup would prove a disappointment for Lopez. Played out wide to accommodate Batistuta, Lopez proved a great foil for Batigol, but his game evolved to become less about scoring goals and more about supply and support.
A player known for his powerful left foot strikes from all angles, he instead cut a comparatively quiet figure, labouring through 259 solid but ultimately goalless minutes.
He finally broke his duck with a goal against Holland that showcases some of his talents – using every trick in the book to flummox the onrushing Edwin van der Sar before poking the ball beneath him – but Argentina ended up going out to the Dutch.
Though Batistuta brought plenty to that team, Lopez’s impact was undoubtedly restricted as a result in terms of tactical approach and the setup of Passarella’s team as a whole. His form upon returning to Valencia demonstrated that.
The 1998-99 campaign saw El Piojo score 30 goals to finish the club’s top scorer, third in La Liga behind Raul and Rivaldo. Another prolific campaign a year later saw Valencia reach the Champions League final and earned Lopez a big-money move to Lazio.
By the time the 2002 World Cup rolled around, Lopez had lost some of that magic touch, with injury issues and a loss of form in Rome leaving the South American shorn of the confidence and improvisational brilliance that had characterised his forward play at Valencia.
Even so, hopes were high that Lopez could rekindle some that magic with much of the pre-tournament press reporting Bielsa would drop the ageing Batistuta in favour of a front two of Lopez and Crespo, utilising two of the squad’s best attackers in the process.
But when the team sheets arrived for Argentina vs Nigeria, Crespo was dropped to the bench, Lopez was on the left-wing and Batistuta was front and centre.
Three games later, Argentina were out and Lopez’s international career was effectively over.
The extravagant and often reckless history of transfer spending at Inter Milan during the Massimo Moratti era is well documented.
Even so, the occasional purchase from this muddled time slips under the radar. And Sebastian Rambert falls firmly into this category.
Argentine strikers were certainly in vogue over in Italy during the 1990s, with clubs everywhere clamouring to find the next Batistuta.
Inter stepped into the arena with the purchase of Rambert from Independiente where he had won the Clausura championship in 1994, scoring a memorably audacious goal away at Boca Juniors to seal victory in sensational style.
Known for his trademark celebration that saw him wheel away to the corner flag, arms spread wide, Rambert was fast emerging as a talent to watch, earning the nickname “L’Avioncito” or “the little airplane” for his troubles.
Called up for the Argentina squad competing in the 1995 King Fahd Cup (a precursor to the Confederations Cup), Rambert got on the scoresheet, adding to a solid return of three goals in his first eight international appearances.
Big things beckoned for Rambert, but he would be quickly brought back down to earth at Inter. He arrived at a club in disarray with a rotten start to the season seeing the first of three coaches depart.
By the time the dust had settled, Roy Hodgson was at the helm and had little patience for a mercurial South American talent struggling with the physicality of Italian football, especially with the three foreigners rule restricting the use of South Americans. The Batistuta comparisons hardly helped, with Batigol’s adaptability making the switch to Serie A’s more demanding style a straightforward one.
Rambert’s struggles simply didn’t cut it with an Inter hierarchy seeking immediate results. He departed on loan for Zaragoza after a single season without a goal, faring little better before returning to Argentina.
A testament to his obvious ability, Rambert is one of only a few players to have played for three of Argentina’s big five clubs: Boca Juniors, River Plate and Club Atletico Independiente. Alas, he never rediscovered the form that convinced Inter to splash the cash.