Gabriel Batistuta: The Romeo to Florence's Juliet in the real Italian love story

Max Cooper
Batistuta was a goal machine during the 1990s
Batistuta was a goal machine during the 1990s / Tal Gilad/Minute Media

While William Shakespeare chose the city of Verona as the backdrop to his most famous romantic (and tragic) play, the city of Florence bore witness to the most gut-wrenching breakup the world has ever experienced.

The opening scene takes place in 1991, when a young, long-haired heartthrob enters stage left, starry-eyed and ready to take Italy by storm. Gabriel Batistuta arrived in Firenze from Argentina, having enjoyed an impressive solitary season in the historic blue and yellow jersey, helping the Xeneizes claim the league title and finishing as the division's top scorer.

Fiorentina knew they had unearthed a hidden gem, but glory was not guaranteed. In his early twenties, there was more curiosity than expectation surrounding this cheeky punt in the transfer market, especially given Serie A's reputation for boasting the meanest defences in European football.

This relationship was a 'love at first sight' kind of thing, though. Batistuta hit the ground running, scoring 13 goals in his maiden campaign, with a less than adequate squad surrounding him. But their lack of quality did not dim his own bright performances. His first three goals for la Viola told us all we needed to know about the Angel Gabriel.

His first was an opportunistic, close range finish, smelling a half chance and acting on his instincts, as a deflected free-kick deviated perfectly into his onrushing sprint. The second demonstrated his lethal ability with his head, racing to the front post and meeting an in-swinging corner with expert timing and venom. And the third - well, would you be surprised to learn that he dispatched a clinical volley, struck with the passion and might that only Batistuta himself could harness? Thought not.

His array of ruthless, surgical finishes, combined with his ability to strike any ball towards goal from any position on the pitch quickly transformed him into one of the most eagerly anticipated players in Italy.

Unfortunately, it was not all plain sailing - as with any good love story.

Batistuta and Fiorentina hit a major bump in the road together in only his second season, when the famous club was relegated to Serie B - despite their forward's 16 goals. Perhaps Batigol questioned if he deserved better in this relationship, or whether the time had come to prematurely wave goodbye to those who had embraced him with such affection.

If he did, he didn't act on that gut-feeling - that would come later. For now, he was committed to becoming a Viola legend, and set about returning them to the rightful place among Serie A's seven sisters.

Another 16 goals in the second tier saw Fiorentina regain their top-flight status after a short 12-month absence, and with the building blocks in place to grow as one, the couple flourished in each other's company.

He immediately announced his return by scoring in each of the first 11 matches of the campaign, hitting 13 in a record-breaking spell. Cremonese felt the true force of Batistuta's devastating talent in the third game of the season, when he acrobatically assaulted a cross into the far corner with brutal accuracy and ballistic trajectory.

It was a goal that could arguably be the pinnacle of most striker's portfolio, but for our main man, it was simply a run of the mill, routine finish.

Claudio Ranieri's side consolidated their place as a mid-table team, but their prolific striker confirmed his birthright as the King of Firenze. He hit 26 goals in the 1994/95 campaign - a career best in Serie A - ending the season as the division's capocannoniere.

Now wearing the captain's armband, this love affair had reached its peak. Fiorentina had stumbled upon a marriage-material partner, and he was equally as head over heels with his second home. Combined, the duo believed they could take over the whole of Italy, and then, the world.

Mobbed / Phil Cole/Getty Images

In the end, love conquers all.

His relentless consistency and brilliance was unheard of at Italy's top level, and he would hit double figures in every season while wearing the iconic purple jersey. Batistuta had reached a deific status, as the Angel Gabriel Omar became the patron saint of Firenze.

Not very heavenly however, was his trademark celebration. The Argentine regularly unfurled an air-machine gun upon inflicting the fatal wound, spraying imaginary bullets with glee over the pain he had inspired.

A beautiful angel with a machine gun. Just your regular hero.

Batistuta managed to write his name into the history books as one of the greatest Serie A stars of all-time over the next half-decade, hitting 21 goals twice and 23 between the years 1997 and 2000. He was so highly respected in Italy that the entire nation waited with bated breath whenever Fiorentina met Inter, where the world's two greatest strikers would collide.

Comparisons with the legendary Ronaldo tell their own story.

Batistuta gave the world a glimpse of just what he could do on the European stage with la VIola, hammering a blistering dagger through Arsenal's hearts from an impossible angle, before then shocking the great Manchester United.

Fiorentina stunned the Red Devils in Italy, beating the English giants 2-0, with Batigol striking the first blow of the evening. But it was on English turf where his destructive right boot really cemented its place in European folklore.

The visitors took the lead through their talisman, who silenced the home crowd with a thunderbolt from all of 35 yards. The ball swerved, dipped, whistled and exploded as it hit the net, and the luscious long locks, held in place by a suave purple headband bounced in delight. It was a goal for the ages.

"A speed of light strike," as coined by Clive Tyldsley. In the blink of an eye, it's game over.

Back on home turf, Fiorentina hunted the elusive scudetto that they and their lover so desperately craved, but the missing piece in the jigsaw would forever evade them. A Coppa Italia success in 1996 did soften the blow, but it wasn't enough. This time, love did not conquer all. It could not compete with ambition.

Two glorious men
Two glorious men / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

In 2000, Batistuta stunned his other half by asking to split, and he joined AS Roma in search of a league title. A strange decision, given I Giallorossi hadn't won the league since 1983. But 12 months and 20 goals later, it would make a whole lot more sense.

This relationship did hold a final, heartbreaking twist. In real Shakespearean style, Batistuta scored against Fiorentina in his first encounter with his ex, blasting a 30-yard volley home in the last ten minutes to win the game. Visibly shaken by the emotion of the occasion, the Argentine broke down in tears on the pitch. He saluted his former supporters at the final whistle, who showed him the same love and loyalty as they had when he wore their famous armband.

There was an acceptance over the breakup. Sure, it hurt, and melting down his statue outside the stadium did feel a tad rash. But time is the greatest of healers, and Fiorentina can look back at their decade-long, 151 Serie A goal romance and say, 'don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.'

Batigol / Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Legends are few and far between, and Florence may never feel love-struck quite like they did when they laid eyes on their charming, stunning and loyal companion for the first time - the greatest player in their history.

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.”

There's only one Batigol.