Mario Kempes: Argentina’s First World Cup Hero

The year is 1978 and Argentina are deep into their preparations for the forthcoming World Cup. Among the party is Valencia striker Mario Kempes. As the only foreign-based player, he has joined the group late, arriving in May when the rest have been preparing since February.

Until that point coach Cesar Luis Menotti had believed Argentina based players would see his team through on home soil. Only Kempes superb performances leading up to the tournament changed his mind. It would later prove to be a decision of supreme wisdom.

Other players in Kempes’ position might have felt like an outsider but that was not the case. Menotti had made togetherness a key principle of his squad, meaning they welcomed Kempes with open arms. This principle had helped return Argentina to their ‘La Nuestra’ best and as a result, the expectation was high that his group, containing talents such as Ardiles, Ortiz and Houseman could go all the way.

That was an achievement they would manage, but it was Kempes whose name would forever be remembered.

Four years earlier he had been a second-half sub in the 1974 defeat to Holland, failing to find the back of the net or aid his side’s cause in any way. In the four years since he had established himself as the best around. To say he was among the world’s elite forwards would be an understatement.

Three years with Rosario saw him notch 85 goals in 107 games, earning him the nicknames ‘El Toro’ and ‘El Matador’; it would also earn him a move to Europe with Valencia.

A hard-working, surging centre-forward, Kempes would refine his style in Spain, perfecting the ability to run from outside the box and finish inside of it, in the process making other strikers look out-dated and becoming a nightmare for defenders.

The goals would continue to flow, with 63 goals in his first two years earning him consecutive Pichichi awards and establishing him among the best forwards around. Thus, he arrived at the World Cup in good form and full of confidence. Defenders were dreading coming up against him and rightly so.

Not that this start to the campaign would give any signs of the magic he would later weave. He would fail to get on the scoresheet in the first three games and Argentina finished second behind Italy in the group. At the time this would look unfortunate but later transpired to be just what Kempes and his team needed.

Paired with Brazil, a strong Poland team and surprise package Peru, Argentina had it all to do. Having to move away from Buenos Aires to Rosario also seemingly made the task more difficult. Instead, it would prove to be theirs and Kempes making.

It was here he had begun his career and where ‘El Toro’ would find his World Cup horns.

First up was a clash with Poland and the beginning of what would become a remarkable story for Kempes. Having put his side in front, he would then acrobatically punch away a goal-bound Poland effort to maintain his team’s lead.

The referee would award a penalty, which was duly missed. Kempes somehow avoided a booking and then later bagged the second to secure the points. Fate was on his side and he took full advantage of that fact. Long before Diego Maradona and the Hand of God, Kempes was up to his own mischief. On reflection, England should have seen the former’s incredulous moment coming long before it did.

A 0-0 draw with Brazil would follow, meaning that Argentina had it all do in their final game with Peru. Results elsewhere meant a 4-0 win was necessary if they were to secure progression to the final.

Kempes would ensure it happened, bagging two in the eventual 6-0 win and setting up a meeting with the Netherlands. It was almost as if fate had again willed it for him and Argentina.

Holland, who had battered La Albiceleste at the peak of their total football dominance four years earlier, were without Johan Cruyff. They were not, though, easy opposition by any means.

Inside the Estadio Monumental, the stage was set for a hero to make his name and Kempes would do just that. Amidst the ticker tape, he would secure his World Cup legend.

Collecting a pass from fellow forward Luque he would fire his side in front in the 37th minute before Rob Rensenbrink’s toe-poke forced the game to extra time. Here, Kempes would write his name into the history books.

His surging run, in which he would skip past two challenges and eventually poke past the keeper would end in a goal and perfectly demonstrate why he had earned the ‘El Toro’ nickname. It would also put his side 2-1 up and one step closer to World Cup glory.

“The crowd were willing it over the line. It was a goal of real suspense, and it finally sneaked in.”

Mario Kempes on his World Cup final goal

Daniel Bertoni would later grab the third and seal the result. Argentina had their first World Cup and the hero was undeniably Kempes.

Six goals, two assists, the Golden Boot and the undying adulation of his country were all his and deservedly so.

Nothing would ever top his exploits in the 1978 World Cup, despite further success at Valencia. For one glorious summer, in his home country, nobody came close to being as brilliant as he was.