About Gabriel Batistuta, Heroes, and Getting Older

I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

Our big assignment was to write a report about one of our heroes. I wrote about Gabriel Batistuta—the Jesus-looking striker from the late ’90s and early ’00s who was Argentina’s leading goal scorer until 2014, when he was passed up by Lionel Messi.

Why Batistuta?

I imagine, from birth, our first heroes must be our parents. It only makes sense. They feed us, clothe us. They put a roof over our heads. Every father in history has said when the teenage outbursts come, “If it wasn’t for your mother and I….” 

But there comes a point in all of our lives when something changes. It happens once we come into an understanding of who we are in the world—before we rebel as teenagers or, years later, realize our parents may have actually known more than we thought and find ourselves calling home every week to ask for advice about buying homes, selling cars, and getting babies to sleep. 

My parents watched it happen with me in much the same way I’ll watch it happen with my six-week-old daughter in the years to come. At some point in childhood, we hit a point where our needs extend beyond the immediate. Our parents are left in the dust as we search for heroes who can provide us something they cannot: meaning, ambition, the fulfillment of some intricate longing that we may only be able to untangle years later.

Batistuta was always special to me. For the cover of my eighth-grade report I proudly enlarged his picture—the one that appears here, the same one I naturally chose for my first Facebook cover image six years ago. I must’ve first come into contact with Batistuta during the 1994 World Cup. My grandmother, my nona, taped the games for my grandfather while he was at work, then he’d come home and watch them in the kitchen while he ate dinner. I was five years old. If there was anything I knew about sports back then, it was Argentina and soccer. Although I have always been stocky and of average height, made to play along the backline or in central midfield, I loved watching Batistuta. He was towering and muscular, and he hit the ball so hard it looked like a camera trick where the play was sped up for TV. In 1994, he scored a hat trick in Argentina’s opening game against Greece, then scored once more from the penalty spot as the team was eliminated by Romania in the Round of 16.

Four years later, my obsession peaked. 

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Batistuta scored the winning goal in the opening match against Japan, then added a hat trick in a 5–0 destruction of Jamaica. In that game, his third goal, a penalty kick, was probably the most powerfully hit shot I’ve ever seen. He scored once more in a second-round win over England, a game best remembered for its controversial red card to David Beckham for kicking out at Diego Simeone. Then came the quarterfinal against the Netherlands. I remember exactly where I sat as Argentina was eliminated 2–1 thanks to a 90th-minute Dennis Bergkamp goal scored three minutes after Ariel Ortega was sent off for head-butting goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar after failing to trick the referee into awarding him a penalty kick: I was three feet from the old wood-console television set at our vacation home in the Pocono Mountains where my dad had invited his Portuguese friends to spend the day watching soccer with us. It was July 4, the day we celebrate US independence with fireworks and barbecue. I held my head in my hands and cried. 

It was harder to watch international club soccer games back then. Batistuta had played in Italy, for both Fiorentina and Roma, and I saw him only by luck. For me, it was the Argentinian national team and little else. Because he wore number 9, I always asked for the same number on my recreational and travel soccer teams. My American coaches didn’t care for the traditional numbering system that says 9s are center forwards, so it didn’t matter that I was a defender.

By then I had already been going to the park behind my parents’ house after school to play pick-up with the old Mexican and Central and South American guys. I was shyer then, but when one of the older men—an Ecuadorian named Armando, nicknamed Rossi because he usually wore the legendary Italian striker’s jersey—asked my name, I said, “You can call me Batistuta.” 

The name stuck until I left Bayonne nine years ago for Knoxville. Three years ago, my mom was in an Italian bakery owned by a Mexican named Lupe when she called me and asked if I knew him, because he’d talked about once playing soccer at 16th Street Park with an Argentinian guy, but he couldn’t recall his name. I said, “You have to say Batistuta, mom. No one knew my real name.” The next time, Lupe remembered. (One of my favorite memories of Lupe is when his wife asked him to spend the afternoon with their two kids, so he brought them to the park and made them sit by one of the makeshift goals while we played soccer for two hours. He later gave me his card and asked me to call him if I ever needed a DJ for a party.)

Batistuta’s last game for Argentina was a 1–1 tie with Sweden that eliminated them from the 2002 World Cup in Japan. The game was broadcast at 2:30 a.m. our time. I watched from my grandparents’ spare bedroom as my nono watched from the kitchen. I hated to go to school that day, but I had to. American kids weren’t yet as obsessed with soccer as they’d become eight years later, after Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal against Algeria at Africa’s first World Cup. By then, the English Premier League had made its entrance into most American households, and suddenly nearly every American soccer fan knew Aguero, Tevez, and Coloccini. But for a long time, I felt nearly alone in my obsession.

My book report came a year after Batistuta said goodbye to international soccer. He was preparing to make his last professional move, to a club team in Qatar where he broke the record for most goals scored in a season—25 in 18 games. 

That was 17 years ago. I’ve lived a lifetime since then. I’ve been to college, married, moved away from home, divorced, gone back to college, changed careers, remarried, and become a father. I’ve watched thousands of hours of soccer. I’ve spoken with my grandfather about “El Conejo” Saviola on car rides where he wouldn’t let me listen to the radio, bought custom Argentina jerseys with my last name on the back from a Colombian at the Meadowlands Flea Market, spent $1500 to fly home and watch Argentina lose a goalless Copa America final in penalty kicks to Chile, and spoken face-to-face with Mario Kempes—the player who led Argentina to its first World Cup victory in 1978. 

I’ve watched Argentina crash out of World Cups from TVs in Bayonne, in Bristol, Connecticut, and at a Bolivian friend’s house five minutes down the road from my home in Knoxville. That last time, I wasn’t as angry as I was when I said goodbye to “Batigol.” We ate Spanish paella afterward with others in the neighborhood who popped in for the food and not the soccer. Back in 2009, I had decided Argentina didn’t need me as a fan as much as the US does, and much more of my soccer pain this past decade has been associated with watching the American men fail while being paid millions more than the American women who just won our second consecutive World Cup. Soccer is cruel. 

But even as time keeps passing there is still and will always be Batistuta. I think of him nearly every day—mostly because many of my passwords include some reference to him, but also because I instinctively compare every tall, stone-footed, long-haired striker galloping into the penalty area to crash into a cross or an opponent to him. I even compare female soccer players to him. I loved Abby Wambach because I first loved Batistuta. And I expect it to be this way even as my heroes are replaced by the people I see every day who meet the longings Batistuta did for me as a kid. My wife. My daughter, who one day will hear my stories of Batistuta. And she will ask, “Daddy, is that like Alex Morgan is for me?” or “You mean like Rose Lavelle? She scores some pretty cool goals.” And I’ll say: “Yes, sweetheart. Just like them.”

Sunday Game

Soccer goalie in net

Seated on hot aluminum bleachers,
I watch them on green-yellow grass.

Sweat soaked Sunday warriors,
their heads craning toward the blue sky,
panting like race horses,
chasing a once-white ball,
falling to the ground,
and rising again;
a pattern stitched in ninety minutes.

Whispering past,
the ball is a note
in a measure to a song
written in spontaneity
by an orchestra of twenty-two.

A whistle.
A water-bottle shower.
They start again:
Cleats striking synthetic leather,
as the heat rises.

I watch them quietly.

On hot bleachers,
wives, brothers, friends
shout as their warriors
dance in and out of rhythm.

A goal—just one.
A whistle.
All done.

The Penalty Kick

Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.

It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.

The sun was setting.

After Jacob set the ball down, he stood up and looked toward the old goal. The once-white net was a dusty gray and hung sadly, full of holes. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, lifting his head to the sky. Jacob was in his imagination now.

“It all comes down to this,” he heard the voice of Ian Darke say. “Jacob Costa is going to be the last player to take it for Argentina.” (In his head, he always played for Argentina. It was the only team he’d ever watch with his dad).

Jacob stood to the left of the ball. He opened his eyes and took three steps back and one more step to the left. He was transported to the Maracanã Stadium in Rio. Jacob turned his back and stared into the distance, breathing in through his nose and exhaling deeply. He imagined there were 100,000 people in the stands like the day Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final. His grandfather had told him the story many times. The Brazilians supposedly threw themselves to their deaths after they lost the final.

“Costa has been Argentina’s most consistent penalty taker. He hasn’t missed from the spot all year. But, can he do it on the big stage here? Millions are watching all over the world as he steps up to take it. Will Jacob Costa be the hero for Argentina?”

Jacob turned back around and stared ferociously at the goal. He was staring at the biggest goalkeeper he could’ve imagined. He picked his corner, like his dad had always taught him. “This one’s going in the top right,” he muttered under his breath.

Jacob took another deep breath, stared at the ball, and stared again at the goalkeeper he imagined in his mind. The goalkeeper was jumping around, ready for the kick. Jacob smirked. He took two steps toward the old ball, planted his left foot beside it, and drove a shot that curved into the top right corner through a hole in the net.

Jacob Costa jumped into the air celebrating. He fell to the ground and grabbed his head with his hands. “He’s done it! Jacob Costa has done it! He’s won the World Cup for Argentina with the very last kick of the game!”

The floodlights came on as he kneeled in the dirt, imagining his teammates surrounding him. The ball was twenty yards away in a ditch beside the trees. It was time to go home.

This is a short story about a moment, as many of my stories and poems are because of their short nature. Moments are powerful. We can all connect to moments.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time in the park behind my parents’ house in Bayonne. It was in that park my dad taught me how to play soccer (it’s the same park from “My Dad and the Soccer Ball”). For years, starting in eighth grade, I’d head to that park alone or with my friends to play soccer. A lot of the time, it was alone. I wasn’t a very good soccer player, but I was obsessed with it. I would watch for hours on TV, and when me and my  grandpa drove in the car together he’d never let me listen to the radio so instead I just asked him about what was going on with Argentina’s national team. It was on one of those car rides to the pet cemetery in Old Bridge, where his dog had been buried, that he told me all about Riquelme and El Conejo Saviola.

I remember sitting in my parent’s old vacation home in the Pocono Mountains with my head in my hands as Holland eliminated Argentina from the 1998 World Cup. I remember exactly where I sat—five feet in front of the television, adjacent to the couch where my dad watched with his Portuguese friend—and how I felt: devastated. Even though I was born in the United States, I never watched U.S. soccer growing up. My dad, grandpa, uncles and everyone else in my family watched Argentina, so I did, too. My first hero was Gabriel Batistuta, who I wrote a report on for Ms. Squittieri’s class in eighth grade. The assignment was to write about one of our role models. Many of the other students thought it was Jesus when they saw the picture on the cover (to be fair, this is Batistuta).

I imagine there are millions of boys and girls around the world—maybe even every boy and girl who has ever touched a soccer ball—who imagine themselves as Messi, Cristiano, Zlatan, Mia, Marta, Alex Morgan when they’re playing with the ball. It is what drives us to keep playing. We want to be like the players we admire. We want to celebrate. We want to be loved and idolized. And, for many of us, it doesn’t start in some rigid club system on perfectly manicured turf. It starts in our backyard. It starts in a vacant lot across the street. It starts on a dusty soccer field where no one is watching. Or, maybe, everyone in the world is watching. It all depends on how you see it.