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.