June 25th, 1978. As Italian referee Sergio Gonella blew the full-time whistle, the nation of Argentina was sent in to elation.
For the first time in their history, they were crowned world champions, on home soil, and although their victory was clouted in considerable controversy, with the military coup two years prior and blatant bribing of the Peruvian national team in their final second round game, their hero, and best player, was not.
Mario Alberto Kempes was born on July 15th, 1954, in the city of Belle Ville, Córdoba. He, much akin to the world class players that would follow in his footsteps, honed his skills on the rough, pothole-ridden streets, and it is these skills that forced Talleres to sign him to their reserves in 1968, at the age of fourteen.
Despite wearing what would become perhaps the most iconic jersey in all of football, the Albiceleste’s number ten, he did not bear the qualities of a traditional playmaker. Although he was blessed with exquisite ball control, he preferred being on the end of the final ball, as opposed to playing it, and, inspired by his father, became a centre-forward.
‘El Toro’ made his professional debut in 1970 for local club Instituto, to whom he joined from Talleres, and set the benchmark for what was to come, amassing 11 goals in 13 games over a three year period. 19 year-old Kempes would then be on the move again, and it is his spell at Rosario Central that really grabbed people’s attention.
His remarkable goal scoring was on show for everyone to see in the city not far from the capital, where he scored 85 goals in 107 appearances. It is this incredible form that first grabbed the attention of then national team coach Omar Sívori, who awarded the 19 year-old his first cap, and later of Valencia head coach Heriberto Herrera, who would sign him for ‘Los Che’ in 1976.
Over the course of two seperate spells with the Spanish club, Kempes would achieve God-like status, where he is considered by many to be the club’s greatest ever player. His goal scoring record stands at 116 goals in 184 appearances, as well as winning the 1980 Cup winner’s cup, the 1980 UEFA Super Cup, and the 1979 edition of the Copa Del Rey, where he scored both goals in a 2-0 success over Luis Molowny’s Real Madrid.
In spite of all his club successes, however, it is his performances back home in 1978 that stands out the most.
Sívori only lasted a year after handing him his debut, while Vladislao Cap fared no better, lasting a matter of months and being dismissed following the timid outing in West Germany at the 1974 World Cup.
Luckily for the young striker, the next managerial appointment would go down as arguably the country’s greatest. Enter chainsmoker César Luis Menotti
Although Kempes scored more goals for his nation under Menotti than any other coach, the team’s performances did not improve immediately. At the 1975 Copa América, despite brushing aside Venezuela twice by an aggregate scoreline of 16-1, they fell twice to Brazil, meaning they failed to progress from the group stage.
The country was in a state of despair, with the current squad being nowhere near good enough to challenge for the World Cup they would be hosting in three years and the controversies in the country, but no one could have envisioned how things unfolded.
Two years prior to the tournament, a military coup overthrew then president Isabela Perón. Countless were murdered and disappeared by the regime; but among the chaos and crisis, Menotti was his usual self, cold and calculated, diverting the pressure away from his players. He also handed Kempes the number ten jersey. Not asking him to fulfill playmaking duties – that was Osvaldo Ardiles’ job – but as a clear message that he was the star player and that the team was built around him.
La Albiceleste opened their campaign with a 2-1 win over Hungary, while following it up with a win over France by the same scoreline. However, a 0-1 defeat to Italy left them second in the group, meaning they faced a tough second round group, and with Kempes failing to register a goal in the opening three games, doubts were beginning to arise over the quality of the man that they had placed so much faith and expectation in prior to the tournament.
Argentina were tasked with the daunting prospect of overcoming Brazil, Peru and Poland in their second round group. They faced Poland first on June the 14th in Rosario, defeating them by a scoreline of 2-0, with Kempes scoring both.
And just as faith was being restored, a 0-0 draw with Brazil, while Brazil would beat Poland 1-3, left them needing to beat Peru by a margin of four goals if they were to play in the final. It is this circumstance that arose so much controversy, and took away from Argentina’s eventual victory.
There was initial worry prior to the game, as the Peruvian goalkeeper was born in Argentina and with Peru having nothing to play for, there were fears he would purposefully play below par to allow Argentina through, while accusations arose after the game that the Argentine government intervened prior to kick-off in the Peru dressing room and bribed the opposition.
These claims were mostly put forward by Brazilian media outlets, the nation that suffered due to the eventual scoreline and were forced to settle for the third place play-off match rather than the final, but still, the Peruvian performance can not be ignored.
Argentina raced to a 2-0 half-time lead, with kempes scoring one, meaning they needed two more to play the Netherlands in the final. They finished the game scoring two more than what was required, winning 6-0, as their main man scored a brace during a pitiful Peru performance during which they struck the post twice, but offered little else. Cue the Brazilian uproar, but Argentina were finalists, and they were not.
The final itself was a closely contested affair, at least over ninety minutes. Kempes opened the scoring seven minutes before half-time with a clinical finish under the opposition goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed, but eight minutes before the final whistle, Dick Nanninga headed home the equaliser for the Dutch, meaning we would have extra-time. This is where the hosts ran away with the contest.
No prizes for guessing who restored Argentina’s lead following a wonderful dribble past two Dutch defenders and scraping the ball over the line, before five minutes from time, Daniel Bertoni finished well – assisted by Kempes – to cap off a 3-1 victory and give Argentina their first world title. After the full-time whistle, it was Daniel Passarella that hoisted the trophy aloft, but Mario Kempes that was the nation’s real hero.
Following his world cup triumph and successful spells in Spain, Kempes played out the rest of his career moving between clubs in Austria, Chile and Indonesia, although his career never reached the same previous heights.
He retired from international duty in 1982, before calling a time on his playing career in Indonesia in 1994, and has gone down as perhaps the greatest out-and-out centre-forward his country has ever seen. His goal scoring tally stands at an incredible 320 goals in 598 appearances for both club and country.