With the exception of Diego Maradona, nobody shines brighter than Mario Kempes in Argentina's star-studded football firmament. "El Matador" was born in Córdoba (Argentina) on 15 July 1954. His father, who had been an amateur footballer in his youth, encouraged the young Kempes to start playing when he was 9 years old. Seven years later he led his local team to the regional championship as leading goalscorer. He made his first division debut on 5 October 1973 for Instituto de Córdoba in a game against Newell's Old Boys, finishing on the losing side (0-1).
Successful as he was as a club player in Argentina, Kempes' greatest achievements came with the national team. He hit the net 20 times in just 43 international appearances. "My country is extremely fortunate in that it produces great footballers. I am just one of many who have played their part in Argentina's football history," he said with characteristic modesty when he retired.
He first pulled on the national team jersey on 19 April 1972 in an under-18 match against Portugal in Cannes, hitting one of the goals in a 3-1 victory. His first full cap came in 1973, when still only 19, during the South American qualifying rounds for the 1974 FIFA World Cup. The press dubbed this side the "ghost team", because of the high proportion of unknowns who had been called up in order to give the squad more time to adapt to playing at altitude in La Paz (Bolivia). Argentina, under coach Enrique Omar Sívori, won the match with a goal by Oscar Fornari.
El Matador was to play in three FIFA World Cup finals (Germany 1974, Argentina 1978 and Spain 1982), making a total of 18 appearances. Argentina performed disastrously in Germany, where they were knocked out in the first round after being on the wrong end of a thrashing by Johann Cruyff-inspired Holland. Kempes was unable to make his presence felt in Germany, failing to score in the tournament.
Three years later Kempes was the new darling of the fans of Valencia (Spain), after a record transfer for an Argentinean. Prior to the move, he had become all-time leading goalscorer at Rosario Central, hitting 100 goals scored in just two seasons.
Kempes' record in Spanish football is impressive too; two Spanish Cups, two European Cup-Winners Cups, one European Super Cup, and twice leading goalscorer in the Liga, first in 1976/77 with 24 goals and again in 1977/78, with 28.
At a time when his country was living under a military dictatorship, Kempes was one of only two players in foreign clubs to be called up by coach César Luis Menotti for the 1978 FIFA World Cup. "He's strong, he's got skill, he creates spaces and he shoots hard. He's a player who can make a difference, and he can play in a centre-forward position" were the words Menotti used to describe him when announcing the squad he had selected for the 1978 tournament.
Argentina's first-round victories over Hungary and France were enough to see them through to the next stage, despite a loss to Italy. On a personal level, however, Kempes disappointed by being unable to score a single goal. "I told him he should shave off his moustache," revealed the triumphant Menotti later, as he held the coveted World Cup trophy aloft, "it seemed to do the trick: he was the tournament's leading goalscorer, with six goals, and was voted Player of the Tournament."
Argentina went on to beat Poland (Kempes scored two), draw with Brazil and defeat Peru (another two for Kempes) in the following round, and qualify for the final against Holland. 25 June, 1978 is a date that stands out in the memories of all Argentineans: Argentina 3, Holland 1. Kempes scored two of his side's goals, the first in the 38th minute of the first half, and the second, after one of his typical strong, gutsy runs, in the 15th minute of extra time. "Winning the World Cup was just what the long-suffering people of Argentina needed, it brought joy into their lives. I remember that I was called up because other players, like Osvaldo Piazza, couldn't be included. I wore the number 10 shirt, and Diego Maradona, who I'd never seen play, was left out. Of course, he went on to become the greatest Argentinean player of all time. I was also the second-ever Argentinean to be the leading goalscorer in a World Cup, after Guillermo Stábile," said Kempes.
Argentina went into Spain 1982 as one of the favourites, with many of the 1978 winning side still in the team. History did not repeat itself, however, and they were knocked out before Kempes could score his first goal. The following year he handed over the number 10 shirt to rising star Diego Maradona, who in his recently published autobiography referred to Kempes as the "man who put Argentinean football on the map".
As much as for his goals (20 in 43 international games), Kempes will be remembered for his fair play: he was never booked or sent off in his international career.
In a lengthy club career he turned out for Instituto de Córdoba (73/74), Rosario Central (74/76) and River Plate (81/82) in Argentina. In Spain, he wore the colours of Valencia (76/81 and 82/84) and Hércules de Alicante (84/86). From 1986 to 1992 he played in Austria with First Vienna (86/87), then Saint Polten (87/90) and finally Kremser (90/92). He then left active football for three years, during which time he received honours from the Government of the Province of Mendoza (Argentina) and worked in Valencia as assistant to their Uruguayan coach Héctor Núñez. In 1995 he made a brief come-back to competitive football in Chile, before becoming player-manager of Indonesian League champions Pelita Hyatt. He hung up his boots for the last time at the age of 41 in 1996.
His first title as coach came in 1999 with The Strongest (Bolivia), before he moved to another Bolivian club, Independiente Petrolero.
1971-1973: Instituto de Córdoba (Argentina)
1974-1976: Rosario Central (Argentina)
1976-1981: Valencia (Spain)
1981-1982: River Plate (Argentina)
1982-1984: Valencia (Spain)
1984-1986: Hércules de Alicante (Spain)
1986-1987: First Vienna (Austria)
1987-1990: Saint Poltern (Austria)
1990-1992: Kremser (Austria)
1995: Fernández Vial (Chile)
1996: Pelita Hyatt (Indonesia)
1978 Spanish Cup winner
1979 Spanish Cup winner
1979 European Cup Winners Cup winner
1980 European Cup Winners Cup winner
1980 European Super Cup winner
1981 Argentinean Championship winner
43 caps (20 goals)
18 games in 3 World Cup finals
1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina: winner, leading goalscorer and Player of the Tournament
1993: Valencia (assistant to Héctor Núñez)
1996: Pelita Hyatt
1996: SK Lushnja (Albania)
1997-1998: Mineros de Guayana (Venezuela)
1999: The Strongest (Bolivia)
2000-2001: Independiente Petrolero (Bolivia)