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When the Lion King lighted up the Wembley Stadium

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After losing 3 games in a row and drawing against Aik Solna, Fiorentina had to win. The team morale was at the bottom and the next opponent was mission impossible: Arsenal at Wembley Stadium.

27 October 1999: The Lion King, aka Gabriel Omar Batistuta, tells us the story.

“A strong wind works on our hips as we warm up. I cross my eyes with David Seaman’s on the other side of the field. I try to imagine all the ways I can pierce it, but I know it is a monument. And that, before him, I have to deal with the defense of the Gunners. People like Dixon, Keown and, above all, Tony Adams: no, I already know that they will not make my life easy.

Those guys are strong everywhere: they have Viera to giganticize in the middle of the field, Bergkamp always ready to turn on the light, Kanu able to punish you at any time. And shall we talk about Ljungberg, Henry and Suker on the bench?

Then the referee whistles the start and starts to turn our heads. Overmars comes out of every pertubation. The Dutchman with the ten on his back hides the ball from us. I am looking for supplies, but the script is clear: there are ten of them behind the ball line, with them making us damn.

I look for comfort in Rui Costa’s eyes, but he is so far from me that I almost have to imagine him. That’s not how it goes. I can’t make a difference if I don’t get half a playable ball. Wenger has studied it well. They seem more technical and more toned. At the end of the first half I see it very badly.

In pain and distress, I can’t explain how we are still on 0-0 with a quarter of an hour to go. Bergkamp meanwhile hit a pole and Toldo placed another miracle on Winterburn’s header with a sure shot. We dance around a meteor shower, dodging them at random.

Then I see it starting from afar, that action. Firicano overbearingly uproot a ball from the feet of that dandy of Bergkamp. He passes it to the Chiesa, supported by Heinrich. And he, unusually combative, starts in central percussion. Nobody manages to stop him until the three-quarters, and there I understand that the moment has arrived. I open up to the right and invoke the ball. It comes to me. I enter the area. I have Winterburn in front of me. It is a split second. I burn it on the shot, stretching out. Then I explode a right, with all the strength I have. The ball travels towards the intersection opposite where Seaman is, driven by all the prayers of Reconquista, my native town. From the unshakable faith of a wall of purple souls.

The image that remains inside me, immediately afterwards is that of the goalkeeper with his hands on his hips. The sphere still sizzles at the bottom of the net. Wembley silenced. We don’t know it yet, but we will be the last Italian team to triumph here. The referee whistles the end and hugs everyone. We have rewritten a story ready for the tabloids. We have changed the rules. We won as a team. Because sometimes it is just a matter of having the courage to take your destiny right out of the hands of fate”. Gabriel Omar Batistuta.

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