Abel Balbo, Roma’s great goalscorer of the 1990s and title-winning striker, is the latest to be featured in asroma.co.uk’s Legends of Rome series.
Balbo was born in Villa Constiticion in Argentina on 1st June, 1966, and became one of the great centre forwards of Italian football in the 1990s. He never found it difficult to settle anywhere he went or score goals in a league where it was notoriously difficult for forwards to score, thanks to his excellent technique, agility, and ability to shoot off either foot. He was simply a goalscorer, and simplicity was his strength; whenever Balbo received the ball in the box he made scoring not only look easy but inevitable. He also used his head in more ways than one – as well as being an excellent header of the ball, he was also an intelligent player who would take a chance on the opposition making a mistake to give himself the extra split-second it took to score. Equally, he was a level-headed player who never got angry with defenders or protested with referees, rarely getting booked – particularly commendable in a physical and exasperating league for strikers.
For a player who had an abundence of natural talent, Balbo only really came to the fore in his early 20s. When he was a teenager in Argentina, he played for his regional team as a midfielder before joining youth side Emilia di San Nicolas. It was only when he finished school though, aged 17, that he was allowed to think about moving. Fortunately for Balbo, his sister was the secretary of Newell’s Old Boys’ vice-president, who signed him up after a trial. He was still playing as a midfielder at the time, but 32 goals in 15 games in one season with the youth team made Newell’s turn him into a striker. He broke into the first team aged 21, making his debut in 1987 in a 1-1 draw against Deportivo Español. “I had moved up to play with the top players, and they were real top players,” Balbo later reminisced. “The team played brilliantly and I started to score in the first division. We won the title at the end an exciting season, and a few of my goals were decisive.”
Balbo’s form caught the eye of Hellas Verona, who had a strong scouting network in Argentina at the time, and they asked if he was interested in moving to Italy. Balbo didn’t think twice and signed a contract with Verona, who immediately loaned him out to River Plate. He had an excellent season with River, scoring 12 goals and playing virtually every game, but when he returned to Verona he wasn’t able to be registered as they had already reached their limit of foreign players. Nonetheless he was destined to play in Italy and signed for Udinese in the summer of 1989, making his Serie A debut for the Zebrette on 27th August, 1989 – coincidentally against Roma. Balbo excelled for Udinese, scoring 65 goals in 134 games, and said that Udine was the ideal city to get experience for a young player in a difficult league. On the pitch though, the team struggled and were relegated back to Serie B in Balbo’s first season – “the worst moment of my career” – but he stayed and helped them back to the top flight two seasons later. He was close to leaving that summer as Inter began negotiations with Udinese for their Argentine star, but Balbo turned them down as he would have been the fifth foreign player in the Nerazzurri squad when league rules stipulated a maximum of three could play.
He would only stay with Udinese for one more year though before Roma came calling in 1993, and for 18 billion lire he became president Franco Sensi’s first major signing. Sensi was in the process of rebuilding the club after the ill-fated Giuseppe Ciarrapico era, and intended Balbo to be a key part of his new Roma. “I arrived at a club that was starting over from scratch, and I’m happy that my goals helped the team get back on its feet again,” Balbo later said. In his first year, even though he was poorly supported by his team-mates, Balbo still demonstrated his quality with 12 goals and showed glimpses of what he was capable of, given better service. This was perhaps Balbo’s weak point, that he wouldn’t participate himself in creating chances but instead stayed as close to the opposition penalty area as possible, always ready and waiting to receive the ball and get a shot off at goal. Although he was most deadly inside the box, he could strike the ball with immense power, and few goals he scored for Roma were as spectacular as his long-range strike against Parma in April 1994.
It was in his second season that Balbo really came to life, scoring 22 goals to help Roma finish fifth. The multiple ways that he scored were giving opposition defences nightmares; left foot, right foot, acrobatically, headers – any way he could, Balbo would punish opposition defences and goalkeepers. He had a close relationship with the fans as well, and scored his first Roma goal (against Juventus) and sealed his first hat-trick (against Inter) under the Curva Sud. “There’s a special relationship between this team and the fans,” Balbo explains. “It’s an inseperable bond that you don’t find anywhere else. I really felt this relationship strongly, and I gave my all every Sunday for those passionate fans.” It was a bond that kept Balbo at the club despite interest from other teams, as he turned down Juventus in 1995 and then Milan in 1997, but despite having an excellent relationship with the supporters his rapport with Roma’s new coach Zdenek Zeman quickly turned sour during the 1997/98 season. Balbo, infuriated with the treatment he received from Zeman, left at the end of the season for Parma. Although Balbo never won anything in his first spell, he scored 87 goals in all competitions and had become a firm fans’ favourite after forming a formidable strike partnership with Daniel Fonseca.
It wasn’t the end of his relationship with Roma, but the culmination of his first spell at the club was really the start of his decline. Having hit double figures in the league every season at both Udinese and Roma, he managed just seven in the five years after he left. He found success in Parma with a UEFA Cup and a Coppa Italia, but moved on after one season to Fiorentina to join his close friend Gabriel Batistuta. In many ways his career was closely linked with Batigol’s; both came from the Newell’s Old Boys academy before signing for River Plate, both then went to Italy (Batistuta a year later) and played together at both Fiorentina and Roma, as well as numerous times for Argentina.
Balbo lasted just a year in Florence before he moved back to Roma for 1.75 billion lire to be the understudy to Batistuta, who also joined the Giallorossi in 2000 for 70 billion lire. They and Roma’s other major signings – Emerson, Walter Samuel, Gianni Guigou and Jonathan Zebina – were welcomed by 15,000 fans on a boiling August afternoon in the Stadio Olimpico. They were presented one by one, and Balbo’s return was given the loudest and most heart-felt ovation. “We want to finally win something big here,” he told the crowd. “This is my city and my home, I’m happy to be back.” Though he rarely featured that season, making just two appearances from the bench in the league, he was rewarded with a title winner’s medal – sealing that long-awaited trophy just as he had promised.
In total Balbo made 15 appearances in his second spell at the club (11 from the bench) without scoring, and in 2002 he returned to Argentina to realise his dream of playing for his boyhood club Boca Juniors. He played four games for los Xeneizes, the last of his career. Balbo then went into coaching, but found little success in Italy’s lower leagues. He quit his job at Treviso 10 minutes before taking his first training session at Treviso, and although he changed his mind he only lasted four games before resigning again due to a lack of organisation and professionalism at the club. He had better success in his first spell at Arezzo, taking them from bottom of Serie D to 7th in three months, but after returning a year later in 2012 he lasted four months before being sacked.
While he had little success as a coach, on the pitch Balbo was one of the best forwards in Roma’s history, following in the footsteps of the great Argentines of the past such as Enrico Guaita and Pedro Manfredini. He was a complete striker, able to strike the ball with both left and right foot as well as being an excellent header of the ball. Not only was he lethal in front of goal, he was consistent as well, reaching double figures in the league in all five seasons in his first spell at the club. He made a lasting impact on the Roma fans, who show their affection for the Argentine whenever he returns to the Eternal City. “I often go to Rome and every time people stop me on the street to say hello,” Balbo said in an interview some years ago. “They wish me well. That’s the most important thing, to be remembered affectionately, to leave a good memory of yourself behind. That’s my greatest satisfaction.”
Honours: Serie A (2000/01), Supercoppa Italiana (2001).
Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com