We remember the litter-strewn pitches of Argentina 1978 as well as the military presence, the controversy and, from a footballing perspective, the left foot and cavalier approach of Mario Kempes, the player of the tournament and leading scorer.
Kempes was the only player in Cesar Luis Menotti’s squad for the World Cup that did not play in Argentina. He moved from Rosario Central, where he had scored 85 goals in three seasons, to Spain’s Valencia in 1976. He was an instant hit in La Liga, finishing leading scorer, and winning the prestigious Pichichi trophy, in 1976-77 (24 goals) and 1977-78 (28 goals).
The pundits were more focused on Brazil’s new wonder boy, Zico, and the absence of Johan Cruyff rather than the relative strengths of the host nation, who would, they said, only win because it was written by the Junta.
But that aside, Argentina were an exciting team to watch, largely because Menotti wanted to play fast, flowing football. In Kempes, he had the perfect forward to finish off the work started by the likes of Osvaldo Ardiles and Rene Houseman. The question was, how would Menotti use his star forward – as an out-and-out leader of the line or just behind a front three, the position he had made his own in Spain?
Kempes also had the ideal partner up front in Leopoldo Luque, River Plate’s muscular centre forward. Both dark, long-haired and leggy, accentuated by shorts that emphasised their limbs, Kempes and Luque looked like they could easily be members of a rock band such as The Doobie Brothers. There was an air of menace about them and they were both extremely awkward to defend against, especially Kempes, whose left foot was lethal, not only in finishing, but also in dragging the ball away from defenders. Kempes had the knack of creating his own chances, often by performing a seamless movement that included bring the ball under control, making space and teeing himself-up for a shot on goal. Luque, meanwhile, was fast and strong and dovetailed nicely with Kempes.
Yet Kempes and Luque had not played together for Argentina since 1976 when the hosts kicked-off their campaign on June 2, 1978 against Hungary. Kempes had been somewhat isolated by the decision to only play domestically-based players, but his currency was so strong after two years at Valencia that the chain-smoking Menotti could not afford to leave him out of the squad.
Hungary had the nerve to open the scoring in Buenos Aires in the 10th minute, stunning the passionate crowd. But five minutes later, a Kempes free kick was parried by the Hungarian keeper and Luque followed-up to equalise. This was the moment the world was introduced to the crescendo of noise that would greet every Argentine goal in 1978. Seven minutes from the end, Daniel Bertoni won the game for a relieved Menotti and Argentina’s campaign was truly underway.
Four days later, Argentina beat France 2-1, another difficult victory, but won by a superb strike from Luque, who flicked the ball up from an Ardiles pass and volleyed past goalkeeper Bertrand Demanes. They had come through the group and just had to face Italy to decide who won Group A and stayed in Buenos Aires for the second stage.
Luque was missing owing to an arm injury and Kempes was employed as a direct front-runner. He was far less effective and Italy won 1-0, sending Argentina to Rosario in a group that would include Brazil, Peru and Poland. For Kempes, it was a return home to the club where he made his name.
Still without a goal in the competition, Kempes really came alive in the second phase. He netted twice against Poland, the first an effortless near post header that he took in his stride, the second a low shot after Ardiles found him ready to bite. Luque was still missing, but returned for the big South American clash with an out-of-sorts Brazil. A physical game ended 0-0, but the initiative had switched to the 1970 winners by the time Argentina faced Peru in the final group game. Brazil had won two and drawn with Argentina, establishing a goal difference of +5, while Argentina had +2. They needed a four-goal win to reach the final.
Kempes gave them the lead after 21 minutes, a typical manoeuvre that saw him control and strike all in one, again with the left foot. Alberto Tarantini made it 2-0 with a header just before the interval and Kempes, predictably, scored with his trusty weapon on 49 minutes. “It’s on, now!” screamed the commentators and within seconds, the fourth goal came, Luque diving full length to send the ball over the line from close range. Anything else now was pure icing on the cake and Houseman provided that in the 67th minute, leaving it to Luque to apply more salt to the gaping wound in the 72nd. A 6-0 win that was full of conspiracy theories; remarkable, suspect, heartbreaking, joyous – name your superlative.
The Netherlands would provide the opposition in the final, a less vibrant, more pragmatic and Cruyff-less side that had matured as the competition progressed. Nobody truly expected them to win and when Kempes opened the scoring with the type of routine that had typified his game throughout the competition, taking the ball on his left and nudging it into the danger zone before scoring with a low shot, it didn’t look good for the Dutch. But they came back and equalised to send the game into extra time, but only after Robbie Rensenbrink almost induced 70,000 coronaries by striking the post in the dying embers. Kempes did it again, though, scrambling the ball home in the 105th minute after he had worked his way through the defence. Bertoni added a third five minutes from time. Argentina had won 3-1 and Kempes, with six goals, received the Golden Boot.
Kempes and Luque had played together 16 times for their country. The first time was in August 1975 when Luque netted a hat-trick on his debut against Venezuela, a game that also saw Kempes score. The duo’s record for Argentina is remarkably similar – Kempes scored 20 goals in 43 games, Luque 22 in 45. Their 17th and last appearance together was on January 1, 1981 when they lined-up against Brazil in Montevideo. That was Luque’s last international game, whereas Kempes went on to the ill-fated 1982 World Cup, his final bow in Barcelona, also against Brazil.
Kempes and Luque are, naturally given their achievements, legends in Argentina. Messi and Maradona are at the head of the queue, but these two direct, skilful and venomous strikers have one advantage over the big names of Argentine football – they won the FIFA World Cup in Buenos Aires. Forty years ago, they could have walked on the waters of the River Plate.
Photo: World Cup final 1978, Press Association.