Mario Kempes achieved legendary status during the 1970s and 1980s in both South America and Europe. Celebrated as one of the greatest center forwards in the world, Kempes accomplished far beyond what even he thought was possible.
The South American Sensation
Born in the city of Bell Ville in the province of Córdoba, Argentina, on July 15th, 1954, Mario Alberto Kempes Chiodi was inspired by his father from an early age to play football.
In reminiscing about his childhood, Kempes said, “Back in the day in Argentina it was about playing football and going to school. For every kid that was born, their biggest dream was to play football and play for the Argentina national team.
Not all of the streets were paved so as soon as we finished school we’d all get together and play out in the street.”
At only 7 years old, Mario began playing as a center forward with a junior side, and by the age of 14, he joined Talleres reserves. During this time, the local media started talking about this new wunderkind as word of his talent spread.
In 1973, Mario Kempes joined local club level side Instituto Atlético Central Córdoba, scoring 11 goals in 13 games, with a move to Club Atlético Rosario Central the following season.
His affinity for scoring goals led to him netting 85 in 107 matches over a three-season run. His scoring feats earned him the nicknames ‘El Toro’ and ‘El Matador’.
Mario Kempes was not your conventional striker, his positioning on the soccer field mainly focused on the midfield. He had pace and was lethal on the break; he bamboozled defenders in remaining high and out of the box. With his attacking style, he would make blistering runs forward and striking powerful shots.
Time For New Adventures
After initially turning down Valencia’s offer from Spain at the end of July 1976, Rosario Central accepted it a few days later. On August 7th Mario Kempes was officially a Valencia CF player, with an Argentine record transfer fee of approximately half a million US dollars.
Kempes felt it was time for him to leave his former club, having later said, “I’d have retired if they hadn’t let me go.”
Mario Alberto Kempes was ready to take his career to the next level – finance was not his motive, as he explained, “I didn’t come to Spain to make money, but to make my name as a footballer.”
The hard working forward moved to Spain and set off a chain of events that would not only catapult him into his most successful club career but would place him on the brink of a call-up to the Argentina national team.
Surprisingly, shortly after he arrived at his new club, Kempes’s hopes of representing his country were crushed when the AFA (Argentine Football Association) decided to ban transfers abroad.
‘Don’t Say Kempes, Say Goal’
Kempes’s first appearances in Valencia’s pre-season tournaments were unimpressive. He himself admitted, “I was playing badly, I missed several chances, even a penalty. After only a few games people at the Spanish club must have been thinking they’d made a big mistake.
But you must remember these were my first games. I wasn’t match fit. And I barely knew my new teammates. There was no understanding between us. I was affected as well by the weather. I left Argentina in winter, and arrived here in the full heat of the summer.”
Once the 1976-1977 season kicked off, though, the Argentine had acclimatized to his new team and found his feet, requiring only 3 matches to hit his high-quality finish.
But, despite a soaring start to Los Che’s season, they ended up in disappointing 7th place in La Liga. The silver lining for Kempes was netting 24 goals in 34 matches.
Splendid balance, burning pace, and fatal precision-made Mario Kempes the core of Valencia’s strike force: his exploits encouraged chants of ‘Don’t say Kempes, say goal’ at the Mestalla stadium from his adoring fans.
The Onze d’Or European footballer of the Year spent five seasons with the team and helped them win:
- 1 Copa del Rey in ’79 (beating Real Madrid 2-0);
- 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1980 (drawing with Nottingham Forest FC on aggregate 2-2, with victory on away goals)
- 1 UEFA Super Cup in 1980 (defeating Arsenal on penalties 5-4).
Kempes was awarded 2 Pichichis as Spain’s leading goalscorer for both the 1977 and 1978 seasons, and he was named the ‘Argentinian Best Player of the Year’ and the ‘South American Footballer of the Year’ in 1978.
The top scorer made 142 appearances, netting 95 goals.
Kempes’s first senior international cap came in 1973, aged 19, during qualifying matches for the following year’s FIFA World Cup in West Germany. The press dubbed Argentina’s national side as the “ghost team”, due to their high percentage of unfamiliar players.
When the time came for Mario Kempes to prove himself in the competition, he fell dismally short – between wasteful scoring chances in the early stages of the competition, and never really recovering thereafter, Kempes ended his campaign goalless.
After barely managing to sneak into the second group round on goal average, Argentina still met their departure. Defeats to the Netherlands, and Brazil, and a draw with East Germany sealed their fate.
Argentina’s experience of the tournament became a huge motivational factor in their preparations for the next one four years later.
Mario Kempes once said, “Everyone thinks it’s the glamorous position to play… It is, up to a point…but if you miss a couple then everyone’s on your back.”
Foiled Disaster And A Heavenly High
By the time the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina came around, Kempes had established himself as one of the world’s leading marksmen, having just won back-to-back Pichichi awards.
The lethal goalscorer was the only player from a foreign club to be called up by Cesar Menotti for the World Cup. On the other hand, the soccer player left out of the team was an 18-year-old by the name of Diego Maradona.
His exclusion from the national football teams drove the media and fans into mayhem and Menotti was severely criticized. He thought that Diego Maradona was too young and he did, after all, have top scorer Mario Kempes in the team.
Backdrop to the 1978 World Cup wasn’t exactly ideal. Argentina was in the midst of political instability and living under the dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, his military regime having seized power early in 1976.
He was responsible for submerging the country into a so-called “dirty war” with many lives lost due to his direct command. The turmoil threatened to derail the tournament before it even began, as several nations called to boycott the World Cup tournament in protest against the authoritarian regime and its human rights violations.
General Videla assured the world that there would be no bloodshed during the competition – the boycott never took place.
The celebratory atmosphere inside the stadiums sharply contrasted with life just outside its peripheries – the host nation’s people finding escape and solace, even if only momentarily, inside the stadium walls.
An estimated 1,610,215 spectators were present during the 1978 World Cup with an average of 42,374 attendance per match. Argentina’s first-round triumphs over France and Hungary were sufficient to send them into the next round, irrespective of losing to Italy.
Mario Kempes didn’t get on the score sheet in the first group phase, and memories of the 1974 campaign came rushing back. Menotti, in recalling a clean-shaven Kempes on a scoring streak for Valencia, suggested the striker remove his mustache in the name of luck!
Did his goal-scoring fortunes return? You bet!
As soon as the second round was underway, Mario Kempes scored twice in every match apart from the goalless draw against Brazil. In the first match, against Poland, ‘El Matador’ scored a double in a 2-0 defeat of the Poles.
Luck was certainly on Argentina’s side. A draw with Brazil was followed by a controversial match against Peru. Mathematically, Argentina had to win by at least a 4 goal margin in order to qualify for the final.
A two-goal showing from the sharpshooter added to a 6-0 demolition of Peru… and a golden ticket to the final!
Speculation immediately arose over the ease with which Argentina overcame its opposition, with rumors churning over the possibility that the match had been fixed, or Peru even bribed, all to secure the home side’s progression to the final.
The Argentinan national team further fuelled controversy as all their matches in the first round kicked off in the evening, giving the hosts the advantage of knowing their standing in the group.
A home-side triumph would surely have pleased the military regime as it would have diverted the attention from their struggles at home. Although the legitimacy of the allegations is questionable, and conspiracy theories are ever-present, nothing has ever been proven.
In the haze of all this controversy, one thing was for certain, Mario Kempes had arrived and caught the attention of the opposition national football teams.
The 25th June 1978 is a historic date for Argentina – it was the day the Albiceleste won its first World Cup title, made all the more fragrant by winning it on home soil.
A passionate and intimidating 71,483 crowd at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires created an emotional atmosphere. Sounds of pounding drums echoed, flares lit and the air colored with streamers curling in the evening breeze.
It is believed that the Dutch players had expressed their unease to FIFA officials prior to the match about leaving the stadium intact should they win.
On the night, Mario Kempes, the epitome of excellence with his swift, direct style, who had made goal-scoring a habit by now, was in tip-top form.
The hosts scored first, only for their goal to be canceled out when ‘El Matador’ found the back of the net in the 38th minute of the first half.
Although the Netherlands started the second half by showering the Argentine goalkeeper with a multitude of shots, it was to no avail. Mario’s second goal, in the 15th minute of extra time, sent the fans into outbursts of elation.
In describing his 2nd goal, the former Argentina national team player said, “The crowd was willing it over the line. It was a goal of real suspense, and it finally sneaked in.” A sensational assist by Mario Kempes set up their third, which Daniel Bertoni put away just moments before the final whistle.
It was a 3-1 triumph, and as confetti rained down, Argentina was crowned king of football. The ‘El Matador’ was awarded the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top goal scorer with six goals.
Mario Kempes stated, “Winning the World Cup was just what the long-suffering people of Argentina needed – it brought joy into their lives. I remember that I was called up because of other players, like Osvaldo Piazza, couldn’t be included. I wore the No.10 shirt, and Diego Maradona, who I’d never seen play, was left out. Of course, he went on to become the greatest Argentinean player of all time. I was also the second-ever Argentinean to be the leading goalscorer in a World Cup, after Guillermo Stabile.”
The crafty goalscorer had begun making way for Diego Maradona, and it was Mario Kempes who passed on his number 10 shirt to the rising star.
In his autobiography, Kempes described Maradona as the man who, “helped give Argentine football world-wide prestige”. In turn, in Maradona’s autobiography, he referred to Mario Kempes as the “man who put Argentinean football on the map”.
An Unfortunate Replay
The FIFA World Cup of 1982 in Spain saw an increase in participants, from 16 teams to 24. Argentina’s performance in the tournament mirrored their previous experience in ’74.
Once again it proved to be a disappointing campaign, with them bowing out in the second round once again. Even the inclusion of Maradona still couldn’t save the team. Argentina was to be dethroned by new champions, Italy.
Over and above his goals, Kempes will also be remembered for his fair play: during his international career, he was never booked or sent off. The ‘El Matador’ represented Argentina in 3 FIFA World Cups (West Germany 1974, Argentina 1978, and Spain 1982), and was capped 43 times and scored 20 goals.
World-Wide Club Hopping
In 1981, Mario Kempes returned to Argentina to play for River Plate, and led them to a successful league campaign. After a short stay, Kempes then packed his bags and returned to Valencia in 1982 for a second stint.
His 2-season stopover resulted in no silverware but the El Matador continued to deliver in the goal department! Kempes’s player/coach position took him all around the world to countries such as Spain, Austria, Chile, and Indonesia. The Argentine finally hung up his boots at the age of 41.
Mario Alberto Kempes had a coaching experience as an assistant to Héctor Núñez at Valencia in 1993. Notably, during his managerial début with Albania’s SK Lushnja in 1996, his spell was cutting-edge.
He became the first foreign coach to sign a foreign player for the first time in Albania’s football history.
In reference to his player-manager career, Kempes had jokingly said that he loved having the freedom of being able to play if he fancied, and then take himself out of the match as soon as he’d had enough!
Upon leaving the dugout, the Matador Kempes worked as a football commentator and soccer analyst for ESPN Deportes. He was a co-host of the international soccer program called Fuera de Juego. He is known for his commentary of FIFA video games between 2013 and 2020 for the Latin market.
Honoring ‘El Matador’
Amongst many accolades, he was named ‘South American Football Player of the Year’ in 1978 (“El Mundo,” Caracas, Venezuela), one of the top 125 greatest living footballers in March 2004 by Pelé, and was awarded the Golden Foot award in 2007.
On the 6th October 2010, Argentina’s Estadio Córdoba, popularly known as Estadio Olímpico Chateau Carreras, was renamed the Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes in his honour.
The striker had scored the first goal in the stadium during the 1978 World Cup tournament. “This fills me with pride,” said the striker. “Normally you get your name put to a street or square in the town of your birth and that always happens when you’re no longer around.”
Mario Kempes Was The Pride Of A Nation
Amongst all the outstanding legends’ stories that we are so fortunate in knowing, there is a legend who stands out above many. The former South American Footballer of the Year career was made all the more spectacular as he achieved the ultimate reward, the World Cup!
A precious dream of millions – achieved by only a few. ‘El Matador’ was part of a nation’s dream, and in writing one of Argentina’s greatest football stories, Mario Kempes played a glittering role.
You’ll be about to the vocal tones of Kempes at the World Cup 2022 as he is currently working as a Spanish commentator and soccer analyst for ESPN Deportes
Mario Kempes Clubs, Honors, And Facts
Full Name: Mario Alberto Kempes Chiodi
Birthplace: Bell Ville, Argentina
Club Level Playing Career:
- Instituto 1970–1973
- Rosario Central 1973–1976
- Valencia 1976–1981
- River Plate 1981–1982
- Valencia 1982–1984
- Hércules 1984–1986
- First Vienna 1986–1987
- St. Pölten 1987–1990
- Kremser SC 1990–1992
- Pelita Jaya 1993–1994
- Fernández Vial 1995
National Team Career:
- Argentina 1973–1982 (43 appearances, 20 goals)
- Pelita Jaya 1995–1996
- Lushnja 1996
- Mineros de Guayana 1997–1998
- The Strongest 1999
- Blooming 2000
- Independiente Petrolero 2000–2001
- Casarano 2001–2002
- San Fernando 2002
Clun Level Playing Honors:
- 1978–79: Copa del Rey Winners
- 1979–80: UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup Winners
- 1980: UEFA Super Cup Winners
- 1981: Nacional Primera División Champions
- 1993–94: Galatama League Champions
Argentina National Team
- 1978: FIFA World Cup Champions
- 1977 and 1978: Pichichi Trophy For La Liga Top Scorer
- 1978: FIFA World Cup Golden Boot, Golden Ball and Selected In All-Star Team
- 1978: Ballon d’Or – Le nouveau palmarès (For South America)
- 1978: Onze d’Or
- 1978: South American Footballer of the Year
Rhett is an Australian-born, globe trotter who is a UEFA ‘A’ Licence Soccer Coach. With his family, he has traveled and coached soccer in more than 30 countries, while attending World Cups, European Championships, and some of the biggest local derbies in the world!