50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #21 Mario Kempes

Mario Kempes
Mario Kempes

When Argentina coach César Luis Menotti named his squad for the 1978 FIFA World Cup, there was shock and outrage when a 17-year-old rising star from Argentinos Juniors was not picked. His name? Diego Maradona.

Menotti did not want the hopes and dreams of an entire host nation to rest on the youngster's shoulders. Instead, he picked two other strikers; River Plate's Leopoldo Luque and the only player who played his club football outside the country - Mario Kempes from Valencia.

Popularly known as El Matador, little did they know that Kempes would eventually be the tournament's biggest star. Wearing the no.10, he was hard to miss - what with his flowing locks that were quite the rage in the '70s and his graceful movement on the pitch.

Kempes had been in the Argentina squad in 1974 but never managed to score. The 1978 tournament saw him go scoreless again in the first group stage as Argentina advanced and people started to question Menotti's decision to leave Maradona out of the squad.

Nevertheless, it was the second round of matches where Kempes came into his own. The first game against Poland not only saw him score twice but also make a goal-line save.

Yes, before the Hand of God, there was the Hand of Kempes.

After having given Argentina the lead over a highly-fancied Poland with a well-placed near-post header, Kempes made himself useful at the other end when he deliberately punched the ball away from Grzegorz Lato's header that was destined for the back of the net.


Back then, this was not a red card offence (like Luis Suarez vs Ghana in 2010) and Kempes didn't even receive a warning as the Polish side were awarded a penalty - which was saved. Poland will have felt cheated as Kempes would go on to double the lead in the second half to give the Albiceleste the win.

Although they would draw 0-0 with Brazil, Kempes was on the money again in the third game when he grabbed another brace in a must-win game against Peru. Needing to win by at least four goals to make the final, Argentina would win 6-0 with Kempes scoring either side of half-time.

The final was a tense affair with Kempes' first-half strike cancelled out by Dick Nanninga's header in the 82nd minute. However, even though it was the Oranje that played the better football in the second half, it was Kempes who put scored a second in extra-time with a sublime dribble that took him through the heart of the Dutch defence.


He dribbled past three players and although his initial shot was saved, Kempes bundled the ball over the line to give the hosts the lead. And if that wasn't enough, he would then assist the third goal which allowed Ricardo Bertoni to put the game out of reach.

Menotti was vindicated as Kempes walked away with the Golden Boot for his six goals. The man who had been doubted and criticised at the start of the tournament became an unlikely hero in the span of a few games.

"He is the man who put Argentinian football on the map." - Diego Maradona

Although the country partied well into the night, Kempes drank a couple of glasses of wine during the celebrations before quietly slipping away in the middle of the night to pack his things and return home.

"I took my suitcases and headed back to my parents' house in Rosario about 300 kilometres from Buenos Aires... I arrived and got my bags and my medal out of the car.
"It was before seven in the morning, there was no one there. I felt very calm. When I went home, my parents were still asleep. I had a coffee and went to bed." - Kempes in The Observer

By the time the 1982 World Cup came around, Maradona had joined the squad too. Kempes, who wore the no.10 jersey in the previous campaign, was assigned the same kit in 1982 too. Back then the shirt numbers were given out in alphabetic order.

However, Maradona was obsessed with the no.10 shirt and he wanted it for himself. Being the humble and generous man Kempes was, he simply gave it to Maradona with a warm hug.

It was the passing of the torch, even if Argentina did not go far in 1982. The stage has been set for Maradona to find his feet and prosper by the time the 1986 edition came around. But that was to be Kempes' last stint with the Albiceleste before he retired from international football.

Kempes was no great goalscorer. He isn't even among the top 10 goalscorers in Argentina's history. But for one World Cup, the Golden Boot was his - only the second Argentine international to win it (after Guillermo Stábile in 1930).

It is why he makes it to our list of 50 Greatest World Cup Players.

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Edited by Ashwin Asok
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