The underrated goals of Mario ‘El Matador’ Kempes, the man who won Argentina the World Cup

The underrated goals of Mario ‘El Matador’ Kempes, the man who won Argentina the World Cup

Famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano poetically described Mario Kempes as “an unbreakable bronco who liked to gallop over the grass-carpeted in a snowfall of confetti, his shaggy mane flying in the wind,” in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. For football fans of a certain vintage, the image of Kempes celebrating his goals in the 1978 World Cup final will be indelibly seared onto their brains.

After a relatively slow start, the number 10 emerged as the undoubted star of the tournament, won by host nation Argentina against a backdrop of fear and military repression. His two goals in the final guaranteed a modicum of revenge over the Netherlands, following the 1974 World Cup humiliation, and briefly papered over the cracks for a government teetering on the brink of collapse. 

Mario Alberto Kempes Chiodi was born in July 1954 in Bell Ville, a small agricultural town approximately halfway between the cities of Córdoba and Rosario, Argentina’s second and third largest. Fittingly, Bell Ville is renowned for manufacturing footballs – boasting more than a dozen dedicated factories – and therefore it’s perhaps only natural that Kempes would choose the path he so successfully did.  

His first club was Instituto, located in Córdoba, with whom he debuted as a 16-year-old in 1973. The club’s distinguished academy also produced Ossie Ardiles and, more recently, Juventus’ Paulo Dybala. After a short but prolific stay with La Gloria, Kempes headed the 400km down Ruta 9 to join Rosario Central. 

Three years in La Canalla’s classic blue and yellow stripes gleaned little collective success – a runner-up spot in the 1974 Nacional the most successful league campaign – but allowed Kempes to emerge as a fearsome goalscorer. He finished as top scorer in the championship with 25 strikes in as many games, accounting for just shy of 50 percent of his team’s overall output. A further 21 goals were plundered in 33 appearances during the 1976 Metropolitano. 

During his time at the Gigante de Arroyito, Kempes was selected by national team manager Vladislao Cap for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. The player, who would become affectionately known as El Matador, made his international debut in 1973 and, just a year later, would appear on the grandest stage of all despite still being a teenager. 

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His international form going into the tournament promised much, with four goals in three games against European opposition, as Argentina prepared for the finals. Kempes started all three group games in the first phase but, crucially, Argentina were only able to finish in second place behind Poland. It was in the fixture against the Poles that an inexperienced Kempes missed a key chance that could’ve altered the game – and the course of Argentina’s tournament. 

The punishment was being drawn in a tough group alongside Brazil, the Netherlands and an East Germany side that created history in the first phase by beating West Germany 1-0 in Hamburg. Kempes started the first match, against Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands, on the bench and was brought on after just 45 minutes with the Dutch already two goals to the good. Cruyff’s second of the night, and Johnny Rep, completed the 4-0 rout. Kempes started the second game, against eternal rival Brazil, but was taken off at half-time. Argentina lost the game 2-1, and a 1-1 draw with East Germany in the final match sealed their exit from the tournament. 

Argentina of the mid-1970s was a football nation without an identity to be proud of. The drubbing at the hands of the Dutch Totaalvoetbal machine in 1974 had as a seismic impact as the defeat to Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, which brought the curtain down on the so-called La Nuestra period. The match against the Netherlands highlighted the negative path that Argentina had trodden since the Helsingborg debacle, and change was needed. The result was the appointment of Huracán boss César Luis Menotti, who was tasked with bringing flair back to the side ahead of the 1978 World Cup, something which he would do with aplomb. 

In 1976 Kempes joined Spanish outfit Valencia, immediately winning the coveted Pichichi award – one of only four Valencia stars to do so – with 24 goals in 34 appearances as Los Che narrowly missed out on UEFA Cup qualification. In the campaign leading up to the 1978 World Cup, Kempes retained his Pichichi crown and netted 39 goals in all competitions as Valencia finished fourth and qualified for Europe. His form going into the World Cup couldn’t have been any hotter. 

The quality and profile of Kempes led coach Menotti to abandon his policy of only selecting domestic-based players for the home-soil tournament. Five years after his debut for La Albiceleste, the stage was set for him to shine. 

Perhaps it was understandable nerves, the weight of expectations from an under-fire military regime, and a population in need of a morale-boosting lift that caused Kempes to start the tournament slowly. Wearing the coveted number 10 shirt, and occupying a central attacking midfield role, Kempes initially struggled in the first group stage, with all games played at River Plate’s El Monumental. 

La Albiceleste beat both Hungary and France 2-1, but then lost 1-0 to Italy. The second-place finish in Group A sent Argentina away from their supposed Buenos Aires stronghold to Rosario. What seemed initially like a curse, especially for Kempes, ended up being a blessing. Back where he spent three years as a player, El Matador came to life in Rosario, away from the stifling pressure of the capital.

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In the opening game of the second phase, Argentina beat Poland 2-0. The absence of Leopoldo Luque, who had two first phase goals to his name, forced Menotti to push Kempes further forward. The reward was a brace from the Valencia man, his first strikes of the tournament breaking an 11-match goal drought for the national team. 

The headlines weren’t all positive from the Poland game, however. With the game finely balanced at 1-0, Poland pushed for an equaliser and thought they had found it when Kempes prevented a Grzegorz Lato header finding the net with his hand. Thankfully for El Matador, Ubaldo Fillol came to his rescue and saved the resulting spot-kick from Kazimierz Deyna. Kempes remained on the pitch and was able to settle the tie with his second goal. 

Writing his World Cup reflections in August 1978’s edition of World Soccer magazine, Brian Glanville was scathing in his condemnation of Kempes’ handball and reproduced a quote from Sir Stanley Rous, the former referee and president of FIFA: “The player who handles the ball on the goal line and gives away a penalty which is missed may feel that he has lost nothing. He has. He has lost his reputation as a sportsman.” 

Argentina shared a goalless draw with Brazil in the next outing, and the Seleção’s subsequent victory over Poland meant that Argentina approached the final game needing to defeat Peru by at least four goals to progress to the final. In a game that has gone down in World Cup folklore, Argentina won 6-0 against a backdrop of intimidation, shady cross-governmental deals, and suggestions that Kempes and other players were “high”.

Kempes opened the scoring after 21 minutes, playing a one-two before outwitting the defender and finishing from 15 yards. Alberto Tarantino doubled the lead as Argentina led 2-0 at half-time. Kempes scored his second from close range just minutes after the break and, three goals later, Argentina had qualified for the World Cup final. 

Argentina were accused of all sorts of subterfuge before the opening whistle of the final. It seemed to work as Kempes slid the ball under the advancing Jan Jongbloed after 38 minutes to ensure Argentina led going into the interval at El Monumental, but Dick Nanninga’s header after 82 minutes forced extra-time. After 105 minutes Kempes restored Argentina’s lead, displaying the balletic feet that were characteristic of several of his World Cup strikes, before benefitting from a lucky bounce. With five minutes to spare, Daniel Bertoni sealed the deal, and Argentina were champions of the world. 

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Despite the controversies, Kempes excelled as the tournament wore on, coming to life when it really mattered, the hallmark of any truly great player. His pace and direct running from deep upset defences and led to him pick up the awards for top scorer as well as the tournament’s best player. He was later also named South American Footballer of the Year for 1978, succeeding Zico and preceding compatriot Diego Maradona; fine company indeed.

The spectre of the military regime will, to some extent, always cast a shadow over the on-pitch success. Many players, Kempes included, have been questioned about their complicity in enabling the regime to use the World Cup as a propaganda tool to portray the image of a happy, vibrant country to the watching world. Distancing himself from the suggestion, Kempes told The Observer in 2002: “Of course it was a difficult situation. I arrived on 8 May and left again on 15 July. I was practically never in Argentina during the time of the military regime. Within the camp we were playing for ourselves, and then for the people and then for Argentine football as a whole – that was our perspective.”

Following the World Cup, Kempes returned to the Mestalla where he would spend a further three years. Sixty-one goals and three trophies – the Copa del Rey, Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup – preceded a return to Argentina, with River Plate the destination.  

Diego Maradona, who by now had joined Boca Juniors from Argentinos Juniors, formed a formidable partnership with Miguel Ángel Brindisi at La Bombonera and their great rivals River Plate sought an antidote. “By now River, still pissed off about my transfer, were looking to buy someone else, to calm the fans down,” wrote Maradona in his 2004 autobiography, El Diego. “They chose well, repatriating my friend Kempes who had been playing in Valencia since the mid-70s. I was proud of that. I had always admired Kempes, and the fact that they made the effort to bring him back to Argentina on my account, to compete against me, made me feel important.”

Maradona’s Boca won the 1981 Metropolitano title, but River were glorious in the subsequent championship, the 1981 Nacional. It proved to be the only league title of El Matador’s career. River faced Ferro Carril Oeste in the final, the modest team that pushed Boca so hard in the Metropolitano. River won 1-0 in the first leg and, four days later, won the away leg by the same margin, the decisive goal coming from the boot of Kempes.

In 1982 the World Cup was hosted by Spain, a country Kempes knew well. He started all five of Argentina’s games in what was his third World Cup. From competing against Maradona on either side of the Superclásico divide, Kempes was now his teammate. The duo helped La Albiceleste advance through the first phase, although a second-place finish – for the third successive World Cup – behind Belgium placed them in a tough group alongside Italy, the eventual winners, and the fabled Brazil side thought by many to be the best ever not to win the tournament. 

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Argentina lost both fixtures and ignominiously crashed out, with Maradona sent off against Brazil with an act of frustrated petulance. The Menotti era was over and, with it, Kempes’ international career. In the wake of the tournament it would’ve been hard to imagine that, for Argentina, more World Cup success was just around the corner. 

The deteriorating economic situation in Argentina, which helped facilitate the demise of the regime, also led to the end of Kempes’ short stay with River Plate. He returned to Valencia, although his second spell at the Mestalla wasn’t as fruitful as the first, and after two seasons he was transferred to Hércules. However, his legacy with Los Che was set in stone, enough so that he was heavily involved in their centenary celebrations in March 2019. 

Two seasons with modest Hércules ended his Spanish adventure, but instead of returning home to a newly democratic Argentina, he embarked on a curious six-year stint in Austria, before brief spells in Chile and Indonesia. In 1992, after he’d finished in Austria, Valencia paid homage to Kempes with a fixture against PSV Eindhoven. Fittingly, El Matador scored twice in the exhibition match. A succession of nomadic managerial posts in Indonesia, Albania, Venezuela, Bolivia, Italy, and Spain preceded a career in the media; Kempes now works an analyst and commentator for ESPN. 

Back home in Córdoba, in 2010, the stadium built for the 1978 World Cup was renamed in his honour. The Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes, more affectionately known to locals simply as the Kempes, occasionally plays host to the national team as well as the most high-profile games involving the city’s two biggest clubs. In Córdoba, Kempes is synonymous with football. 

In El Diego, Maradona suggests that Kempes isn’t given enough credit in his homeland, despite his exploits in 1978. Like Lionel Messi in the modern era, a possible explanation is that the peak of his career coincided with his time in Spain’s LaLiga. Although he won the only league title of his career with River Plate, his short stay in Argentina’s capital paled in comparison to his time with Rosario Central. And, aside from his two crucial goals in the final, his best form of the 1978 World Cup came away from the goldfish bowl of El Monumental.

His brilliance and potent goalscoring abilities brought a plethora of individual awards, but perhaps warranted more collective success during his club career. Considering he won the grandest prize of all, does anyone really care?

By Dan Williamson

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