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. In the way of all great teachers, she connected the heroes of ancient Greek literature—Odysseus, Hercules, Achilles—to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. Then she gave us our big assignment: we were to write a book report about one of our personal heroes.
I wrote about Gabriel Batistuta—an Argentinian soccer player who in the '90s and early '00s could've passed for Italian Jesus and was for some time the greatest goalscorer Argentina had ever produced.
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.”