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Mario Kempes: The Summer That Made A National Hero

Mario Kempes will forever be associated with Argentina’s 1978 World Cup triumph.

He indisputably played a pivotal role in guiding his country to football’s most prestigious international prize and has since become synonymous with their inaugural World Cup crown.

Yet Kempes’ time in an Argentina shirt is curiously sporadic and his famed legacy largely built on the work of a single summer.

Eight years before Maradona’s finest hour, another number ten forever etched himself into Argentine folklore.

Mario Kempes became a national hero in just one summer.

In 1973, Kempes made his professional debut at the age of 19 and began life within the Argentine leagues with Instituto Atlético Central Córdoba.

During his first campaign he made 13 appearances and scored an impressive eleven times. That year he also received his first ever call up to the national side yet played only once and failed to score a goal.

Kempes was a hard-working forward, able to score from close range but especially adept at striking from outside the penalty area. He was also brilliant at making surging runs towards goal, never solely operating inside the box like many traditional strikers, which the opposition found difficult to handle.

Going Missing

Kempes moved to Argentine outfit Rosario Central in 1974, spending three seasons at the club and finding the net 74 times in 94 matches.

His prowess in an Argentina jersey slowly grew. Across the calendar year Kempes registered four goals in ten international games leading up to the 1974 World Cup including strikes in friendly matches against Romania, France and England.

However, only weeks later the 20-year old went missing during his first major tournament, failing to get on the scoresheet at the World Cup as Argentina went out in the second round.

By the end of 1976 and over a three-year period, Kempes managed 24 appearances for Argentina, scoring 14 times but notably all during non-competitive games.

Peaking At The Perfect Moment

In the summer of 1976, following his impressive spell in Argentine league football, Spanish side Valencia acquired his services. It was a surprise move with both Real Madrid and Barcelona expected to move for the Argentine instead.

Kempes won two consecutive Pichichis as La Liga’s top scorer. During his debut season in Spain, the Argentinian scored 24 goals with his second campaign proving even more deadly, during the 1977/78 season he found the net 28 times.

He became the only foreign-based player named in Argentina national coach Cesar Luis Menotti’s 1978 World Cup squad. This broke the manager’s own rule of only selecting players who plied their trade in Argentina’s domestic league.

“He’s strong, he’s got skill, he creates spaces and he shoots hard.” Menotti explained upon the announcement of Kempes’ selection. “He’s a player who can make a difference and he can play in a centre-forward position.”

After his disappointing World Cup display four years prior and having quickly matured into his early 20’s, Kempes proved determined to show a home crowd that he could perform against the elite on the game’s great global stage.


The 1978 World Cup

Kempes’ World Cup campaign began in all too familiar fashion after initially being deployed in a deeper role.

Following the first round group stage, he had once again failed to register a single goal, as Argentina beat Hungary, France and Italy to progress.

Yet in the second round of games, after Menotti finally unleashed him in his favoured striker role, Kempes truly announced himself to the world.

Against Poland he netted a brace, with a precision header after sixteen minutes and then a left footed shot along the floor from 15 yards. Kempes bagged two more goals against Peru, striking after twenty minutes as he controlled the ball at speed before firing home, then later burying the ball from close range.

With the competition’s decision not to stage semi-finals, Kempes’ goals propelled his country to the top of their group and automatic qualification to the final. His fifth and sixth goals of the tournament came in the final itself as Argentina vyed for World Cup glory.

Kempes struck in the 38th minute to give Argentina a 1-0 lead. The striker received the ball on the edge of the penalty area, coolly sweeping it into his path before slotting home. With the game level after 90 minutes, the 1978 World Cup final went into extra time and Kempes was destined to play a pivotal role.

In the 105th minute and moments before the end of extra time’s first period, the forward picked up the ball on the left side of Netherland’s box and danced his way through the Dutch defence.

Kempes’ shot hit the goalkeeper, spun back into his path but the Argentine was quickest to react, stabbing the ball into the net with the sole of his boot. Daniel Bertoni added a third goal five minutes from time to hand Argentina a 3-1 win and their first ever World Cup title.

Kempes ended the tournament as its leading goalscorer having netted a total of six goals and received the Golden Boot. He became one of only two Argentines to claim the prize following Guillermo Stabile’s achievement in 1930.

Yet his goals in the 1978 World Cup Final were his last for Argentina at the age of just 23.

Kempes also won the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament. He became one of only three players to claim the World Cup, Golden Boot and Golden Ball at a single World Cup tournament along with Brazil’s Garrincha in 1962 and Italy striker Paolo Rossi in 1982.

A Lasting Legacy

As a result of his country’s triumph, Kempes shot to global fame, winning South American Footballer of the Year and Onze d’Or European footballer of the Year for 1978. Yet curiously he failed to feature in the top 20 of that year’s Ballon d’Or!

Kempes officially retired from international football in 1982 having won 43 caps and scoring twenty times.

In 2004, as part of FIFA’s 100th anniversary celebration, he was named amongst the ‘Top 125 greatest living footballers.’

It was testament to Kempes’ understated brilliance and a man who seized his moment to forge himself an everlasting legacy.

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