One of my most memorable moments that embodied Mario Kempes as a person was when he was walking around during the 2006 World Cup coverage and he was en route to the studio to tape a show. He walked by a group of employees that were joking and laughing with a former US international that was telling them about his World Cup experiences. They gave him room to go through and continue his path to his final destination. He went by virtually unrecognized.
Being caught in the middle and having the chance to see the entire picture, I chuckled. Imagining the stories that Mario could offer.
More recently, I had the chance to sit down with Kempes for a one-on-one interview, to hear about his World Cup memories.
“During the 1966 World Cup, my father was building our house and I was 12 years old. And I was breaking bricks to help my father build the house. I heard [the World Cup] a little bit over the radio then,” said Kempes, the ESPN Deportes pundit and commentator, who will be covering the World Cup 2014 tournament for ESPN Deportes as an analyst.
“The television set would get those horizontal lines and you would have to hit it a couple of times. . . So when they were showing, let’s say in Mexico [1970 World Cup]. We would be playing in the neighborhood league or would see them somewhere. Back then, there wasn’t this frenzy over watching all the matches.”
“As World Cups passed by, I liked to watch [games] when I could,” said Kempes, almost visualizing those days and narrating as he went on. “That’s why I can say that Brazil ’70 team was great . . . I saw it later on, not at that moment.”
Kempes said that he always had the “spine” of a footballer but it didn’t develop until later in his teenage years. Around 17 or 18 years old, Kempes started to get more involved in Argentina’s youth system, especially in the 1972 Cannes U-18 tournament where they lost to Brazil 2-1 in the final on the last play of the match.
That tournament left a taste of disappointment in his mouth, but it was also a moment where he started to see the seeds of his career grow, especially on the national level. That 1972 tournament, that entire experience, allowed Mario to meet some of his eventual teammates that would have success six years later.
“Some of the players started at Boca, others at River, others at Huracán. We practically began together at a young age,” he said. Kempes was from Córdoba and eventually ended up playing at Rosario Central.
“When we got together, we became friends and with every trip we eventually became that.”
The 1974 World Cup
The youth experience for him and some of his fellow teammates helped their transition to the senior side leading up to the 1974 World Cup. When Mario arrived to the national team prior to the World Cup in West Germany, he never felt so overwhelmed or awestruck. At that stage of his young career, he was already a top player in the Argentine league with Rosario Central and would eventually head to Spain to play for Valencia.
There was a moment where he almost did not head to the 1974 World Cup. “I spoke to Vladislao Cap and said to him that if I wasn’t a starter I wasn’t going to stay on the team.” When Cap heard that, he replied to Mario with one word: impossible.
“After that, I said goodbye,” he said. The 20-year-old Kempes was on his way out of the training complex in La Plata and heading back to the FA complex to finalize his exit from the squad. Luckily, an AFA official who took a car ride to the complex with Mario convinced him to remain in the national team. Mario returned to the camp and asked for Cap’s forgiveness.
“I didn’t just want to be on the national team. It’s great, but to not play, it killed me,” said Kempes, explaining his reaction to Cap not starting him.
Mario was part of the Argentinian side in 1974 Word Cup, but he did not have the same impact or presence in the squad that he would have four years later. In Mario’s words: “It was not a very good tournament collectively, but it was the experience for many of us.”
1978 World Cup
Argentina’s World Cup was one mired in controversy. Kempes, along with Rene Houseman and Ubaldo Fillol, were the “veterans” of the Argentinian side going into the World Cup under head coach César Luis Menotti
“From the ’74 squad, no one was left. It was all new. . . It was different. . . All the players were from Buenos Aires, but having played against them all the time I was familiar with them, and they were like that with me.” Mario said.
At that time, prior to the 1978 World Cup, Kempes explains that there was another player that began making the rounds in Argentine football, Diego Maradona.
“Diego, you could not see him in Europe on television like you do today. He had a lots of references but it was just that. . . But once you saw him, you knew he was phenomenal.”
Before the 1978 World Cup, Kempes was the only Argentinian player that played for a club outside the nation. At this time in his career, he was playing at Valencia while other squad members all played in Argentina. When he arrived for training, Kempes explained that “the big difference was that the other players had time to prepare.” He went on to explain that “what happened was that the [domestic] players played with the clubs and during the week they trained with the national team and that was great.”
This concept implemented by Argentinian coach Menotti was crucial. It established cohesion within the team and made them familiar with one another. “They adapted,” said Kempes. “They learned about tastes, good moods, bad moods and every week learning about them and on Sunday playing against them.”
There was also a difference in the way that Kempes played. Menotti noticed that he needed to play more towards the middle instead of being out on the left wing. “It’s a position that I was familiar with as I played like that at Valencia,” said Kempes.
The change saw Kempes become more active in front of the goal in the initial group stage, but that did not necessarily translate to success in front of the net. Menotti made another change and played Mario in the middle.
“I would hit a post, hit it to the goalkeeper or assist on a goal. But it would not go in,” said Kempes. “But I kept going because I was working and practicing well so I knew it would go in eventually.”
Although he was not scoring, he was looking to contribute whenever and wherever he could. One of the most memorable instances was when he stopped a goal with his hand in the match against Poland. This resulted in a penalty that was save by Ubaldo Fillol. “It was the only thing I could do. I couldn’t head it and my leg was obviously not going to get there,” Kempes chuckled. “I’d never do that today,” he added.
Like many top goalscorers, Kempes would get out of his slump and eventually get rolling and lead Argentina to their first-ever World Cup trophy.
1982 World Cup
Argentina had a different mindset coming into Spain for the World Cup in 1982. They were the champions and were looking to defend their title in Europe. Prior to and during the World Cup, Argentina was in a war and the people of the nation turned to soccer to try to find some solace.
This time around, Mario was not the focal point of the national team anymore as Diego Maradona began to establish himself on the world’s stage for the first time ever.
There was one moment when Ossie Ardiles scored a goal against Hungary when he broke down and cried. The entire team celebrated that goal with him knowing the situation he endured. Ardiles’s brother had died in the Falkland Islands war a few months earlier.
“What happened at that moment is that we started to find out how the war was going when we got to Spain,” said Kempes. “When we were in Argentina, everything was great. We were winning 50-0. When we arrived in Spain we realized that we were actually losing 100-0. That’s when we realized the magnitude of that war.”
Mario’s World Cup experiences are vast. As a player and as a pundit, he’s seen various World Cups from a very close vantage point. “All World Cups are great. If you live them from up close, [they are] even greater, like I did in ’74, ’78 and ’82 . . . One thing is to experience it from within, but to do so as a journalist or fan, those are completely different situations.”
Forty years after Mario’s first call-up to the national team, Kempes will be part of ESPN Deportes’ team present at the World Cup in Brazil offering his perspective on the tournament. For Kempes, this will be his tenth consecutive World Cup that he has a link to.
What always stood out about Mario is his humility and his predisposition toward people that made a difference with him being just “Mario.” In 2011, at the Copa América in Argentina, Mario Kempes was asked for a credential to enter the stadium. What makes it even more amazing was that he was about to go and buy a ticket in order to get in. At that moment, an AFA official charged ahead and challenged the security guard that denied him entry.
“He doesn’t have a credential,” the usher said. “You know what’s his credential, young man?” said the official. “Look up there.”
Within the sightline of the tunnel, he saw the following three words: “Estadio Mario Kempes.”
Editor’s note: For the past nine years, Kempes has worked at ESPN as a soccer analyst for ESPN Deportes and ESPN in Latin America. You can find Kempes’s analysis regarding world soccer and the World Cup on ESPN Deportes.