Cometh the hour, cometh Mario Kempes

It was his speed, control and the courage to run vertically through defences that made him such a fearful battering ram.

Mario Kempes failed to stretch that cup-winning form in the later part of his career.   -  The Hindu Archives

In sport, as in life itself, greatness has a lot to do with the stage. Mark Anthony could have conveyed the essence of that great speech just about anywhere, any other time. But he didn't. He chose to have the bleeding body of Julius Caesar on his arms to find his words immortality. Boris Becker, a West German teenager, became the youngest winner of a Grand Slam men's singles event in London. He could have done it in Melbourne in the Australian Open, or may be in New York, at the U.S. Open. But he didn't. He chose to do it at Wimbledon. And thereby not only found himself a permanent place in the game's history, but has left for posterity a hard feat to emulate.

Right time, right place

Play on the right stage; play it right. And history is on your side. Among the very few who took advantage of the biggest stage in world soccer; the World Cup finals is Mario Kempes of Argentina. Like Paolo Rossi after him and Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Pele before him, Kempes assumed the role in the Argentine World Cup in 1978 that several great stars would have given their careers to play: the role of World Cup hero. It's another matter that Kempes could not stretch that peak level of performance in the later part of his career. For that reason alone he will never be bracketed in the same elite class as Pele or Beckenbauer. But then so long as the World Cup is alive and kicking, so long as it continues to be the stage on which great acts of football skills and artistry are judged, Kempes will be remembered as the man without whom Argentina may never have won the World Cup.

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With three astonishing slaloms, at once magnificent and unforgettable, Kempes found Argentina the three goals through which it beat Holland (3-1) after extra time to win the cup for the first time. Kempes scored the first two goals himself and then set up the third for Bertoni.

Lethal left

"Kempes it was, much too vaguely marked by Willy Van de Kerkhof, given room and time to run at the defence, who scored the first half's only goal. There were seven minutes left to half-time when a four-man movement on the left was concluded by Luque; who had pulled the sweeper Krol out with him; crossing to Kempes. Only Haan stood between him-and Jongbloed and, riding Haan's desperate tackle, Kempes ran on to drive the ball home with his formidable left foot," writes Brian Glanville, describing the first goal. After 14 minutes of extra-time, with the score still 1-1, Kempes turned magician all over aqain. Taking from Bertoni. He ran through a beweildered Dutch defence to finally outwit Jongbloed. It was another spectacular show of speed and dribbling ability that set up the third goal for Bertoni. A marvellously left footed player, Kempes combined splendidly with Leopold Luque, the right footed Argentine forward. The pair tore through defences with reckless abandon.

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The Hungarian and French defenders would testify to this. Initially, the irrepressible Caesar Menotti, the Argentine manager, had Kempes playing in the role of the orthodox centre forward but the clever Menotti found out soon enough that the team was better off with Kempes as a free wheeling presence just behind the forwardline. And that is where Kempes operated from in the final.

 

It was the Kempes left foot that goalkeepers in the finals of '78 so dreaded. It was a lethal weapon. In the match against Hungary, the Hungarian goalminder Gujdar was well in line of the ball and got his hands to it, too, when Kempes struck. But there was simply no way he could secure it, and Luque tapped the inevitable rebound home.

A battering ram

He was no great header of the ball, but still could score important goal or two with the head. Most of all it was his speed, control and the courage to run vertically through defences that made him such a fearful battering ram. Kempes was born on July 15, 1954 at Belle Ville near Cordoba and he started out with the Institute of Cordoba and at 19, a splendidly athletic 19, he turned out for Argentina in the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. It was in 1976 that he left home to play for Valencia in Spain and was an instant success there. He once told Glanville that his style was "the South American style, but a little quicker." He also said when he scores he has "a very intense feeling of satisfaction, of illusion." Well, Argentina winning the World Cup was no illusion. Nor, for that matter, was Kempes, greatness through that thrill.