For the next two weeks, ESPN FC is counting down the 20 greatest World Cup players of all time, with two unveiled per day until the final five. The identity of the No. 1 player will be announced on April 18.
Name: Mario Kempes Nationality: Argentina Position: Forward Clubs: Instituto (1970-73), Rosario Central (1974-76), Valencia (1982-84), Hercules (1984-86), First Vienna (1986-87), St Polten (1987-1990), Kremser SC (1990-92) International career: 43 matches, 20 goals. World Cup participation: 1974, 1978, 1982 - Played 18, Scored 6 Finest World Cup moment: Golden Boot as Argentina won 1978 title. Roll of honour: Winner 1978, Second Round 1974, 1982 This summer, Neymar will return home to try and win the World Cup for the host nation, having spent his first year as a club player in Spain. Back in 1978, Mario Kempes had to do a similar thing as the Brazilian. "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," coach Cesar Luis Menotti described as he announced his selection of the one player in his 22-man squad plying his trade outside Argentina. The Valencia striker shouldered the burden of a team who just had to win the trophy. Or else. Not only were 40 million Argentinians expecting him to fire them to victory, but so too was the military junta of army generals who had the country under an iron grip after a bloody coup two years previously.
Kempes responded with six goals to win the Golden Boot, the shining star of a team who achieved victory under cloying pressure. Two goals in the final fired his country to their first world title. The celebrations under a deluge of ticker tape in Buenos Aires' Estadio Monumental remain an indelible image of tournament history. "There is no pressure once you take the field," Kempes tells ESPN FC now. "If you think about what may happen if you don't win, you better stay at home. We had an aim: to get better every game. We did so and, as a result, we played in a more relaxed way as the competition advanced." Kempes had played at the 1974 World Cup finals as a teenager, as Argentina exited in the second group stage. "I was only 18, and as with everything at that age, I had all the enthusiasm but felt somehow lost," he says. "In retrospect, what I feel is that it helped me become a much better player for 1978." Menotti, the chain-smoking coach with a hippie appearance entrusted with building a winning team, turned to Kempes despite his not having played for the national team for two years. "It is true that I came in late, but I already knew them, having played with them or against them during my years in Argentina," Kempes says. "The moment I joined the squad, it was as if I had been with them forever." Defender Quique Wolff played at 1974 with Kempes, and he was playing for Real Madrid in 1978. Unlike Kempes, he did not receive Menotti's call-up. "Before the 1978 World Cup, I had been suffering him regularly in the Spanish League, where we would often face each other," Wolff says of Kempes. "He had a 'never surrender' attitude that helped him succeed and, to all his virtues, he had added a physical condition that allowed him to become dominant not only in the box, but around the whole field of play. He was unstoppable." Argentina's passage was not smooth. Defeat to Italy in the first round took the hosts away from Buenos Aires to Rosario for the second group stage. "There, they were able to transform the pressure of the fans into something positive," Wolff says. A goalless draw in the second match with Brazil left the hosts needing to beat Peru by four clear goals in their final match. Argentina won 6-0 in a match that has been under suspicion ever since, starting at the fact that Peruvian keeper Ramon Quiroga was born in Rosario. However, collusion continues to be denied.
The final, against Holland, saw the hosts take the lead, through Kempes, of course, who had rediscovered his scoring touch with four goals in the second round, but then pegged back by a Dirk Nanninga goal, before Dutch winger Rob Rensenbrink hit a post in the last minute of full time. In extra time, it was Kempes, running through on goal in his pacy, forceful style, and scoring at the second attempt, who put Argentina into a lead that Daniel Bertoni doubled soon after. Kempes' class had calmed an increasingly frantic nation. Amid the joy of victory was relief, according to the national hero. "It is like when you get an award after a long career: You feel that you've done things the way they had to be done," he says. "We tried to play our best and make the Argentine people happy, and that is what really mattered once it was all over." He returned to the finals four years later, as Argentina failed to defend their title in Spain, but Kempes, bearing down on goal and finishing nervelessly, will always be associated with his country's 1978 triumph.