'The moustache had to go!'
© FIFA.com

Senor Kempes, you must have heard people talking about the FIFA World Cup™ ever since you were a child. What did the competition mean to you back then?
Once you join a football club, the first thing you always dream of is being selected for the national team. I remember listening to my first World Cup in 1966, it was in England. I was with my parents, helping them build our house and listening to it on the radio. We still didn't have a TV back then, but fortunately the first time I listened to a World Cup Jose Maria Munoz was commentating - and he's one of the best there is. That's when I really started to experience what a World Cup is like.

What is the essence of a FIFA World Cup?
A World Cup means everything, and it's something everybody wants to win. That said, only very few of us have been fortunate enough to do so. In my case I was able to enjoy a double celebration, because they also gave me the golden ball and golden shoe for being the tournament's top scorer and best player. And a World Cup is like a season in itself. For a coach it means four years of non-stop hard work. It's not easy coaching a team through qualifying for a World Cup. There are a lot of pitfalls along the way, but reaching a World Cup is the best thing that can happen to any player. It's very difficult to win it. That goes without saying.

Your first FIFA World Cup was in 1974 in Germany. What do you remember about that tournament?
How inexperienced I was. I'd just moved to Rosario Central, who were an Argentinian first-division team. Let's just say I was very green, very young. I was 17 or 18. The first shock came when I met our European-based players for the first time, because I didn't even know who they were. I only knew the ones based in Argentina, and it meant I was a bit in awe of the others. That's until you spend a bit of time together of course, and you quickly start making friends. Even so, it was still a World Cup.


By 1978 most of the faces had changed.
That's right, I think only myself, [Ubaldo] Fillol and [Rene] Houseman were left. After [Cesar] Menotti took charge in the wake of the 1974 tournament the squad underwent a huge transformation. The AFA (Argentinian Football Association) realised that the best thing to do was to stick with the same coach for four years. The idea was to let him do his job, work with him over those four years and to replace him swiftly after the World Cup if things went badly. Thanks to that philosophy Argentinian football began to grow stronger. I remember a national team was assembled using players from all over Argentina: from Cordoba, Rosario, Santa Fe, Buenos Aires... A great national team was built. That was the first step towards winning the tournament.

You were one of the few foreign-based players in the squad, but you had just won two consecutive Pichichi (top scorer) awards.
Yes that's right, in Spain.

I imagine that must have filled you with confidence ahead of that year's FIFA World Cup.
We were all confident because there was a great sense of togetherness in the camp. I joined up not long before the World Cup: I landed in Argentina on 8 May and we had our first game on 2 June. My team-mates, in contrast, had been training together since February. But the best thing was that as soon as I arrived, they treated me as if I'd been there for the previous three months. There was no selfishness, no adverse reactions and none of those sneaks who run blabbing to the coach to tell him what everybody has been saying. Everybody was free to talk to the coach or just get on with their lives. If they wanted to go to bed early or stay up watching TV they could. There were no strict rules governing our behaviour within the training camp. The other players had it tough - being shut away from the world for so long was a big sacrifice - but in the end it all paid off.

From a personal point of view the first round did not go particularly well. How would you explain that?
I may not have scored many myself, but I was certainly heavily involved in Argentina's goals. I'd have shots on goal and the ball would come back off the post or be blocked by a defender, and we were getting chances from some free-kicks of mine that were parried by the keeper. For example against Hungary, [Leopoldo] Luque's first goal resulted from one of my free-kicks. I wasn't at all upset about not scoring. Quite the opposite in fact, as we were performing better and better and winning matches. Later on, after we lost against Italy and had to decamp to Rosario, things suddenly changed. It was fate: I ended up playing in a stadium that I already knew so well, although it had been completely remodelled.

From a personal point of view, would you there was a huge weight lifted off your shoulders after the second-round game against Poland?
Yes, it was liberating to finally score, a huge release. I don't score many with my head but, as it happened, that's how I netted my first-ever World Cup goal. I put it past the Polish keeper, [Jan] Tomaszewski. Curiously enough, he played against us in a friendly game in Germany four years earlier and I missed a chance a minute after coming on when I was completely unmarked. You never know when you might get the chance for revenge, but that was my opportunity. It was my first World Cup goal, and a cracking goal it was too.

Then came the scoreless draw against Brazil. What do you remember about that particular South American derby?
That game was a typical match between the two sides, played at a very fast pace and with a lot of incidents. There wasn't much football played and, not unexpectedly, the match ended 0-0. Then came the Peru game.

A number of foreign observers saw that game in rather a strange light. What are your thoughts on that?
Well if those people watching at home had seen us beat Peru 3-0 away only three months earlier, they wouldn't have been at all surprised [by our margin of victory]. In the opening round Peru played really well and produced some great football. They also scored heavily and were one of the best teams. But in the second phase, they weren't the same side. We knew if we could win by four goals, we'd put Argentina in a final again after I don't know how many years. With Brazil having already won their last game, we knew we had to win by four if we wanted to seize the opportunity and reach the Final.

I believe that if Argentina had needed to score eight in that game, we would have. We were hungrier that they were, in a sporting sense. It's not necessarily that we had better players, just that we were more confident of victory than they were and it made us that bit stronger. Later, a lot of stuff was said. Perhaps if it had come out in the aftermath of the game or a month later, but no, it was something like two years later when people started to talk.

Menotti told us a story about your good self. He says he told you, "Look, Mario..."
(Interrupts question) "The moustache will have to go?"

Exactly. What went on?
We were so focused on the job in hand at that time. We never left the training camp, and I couldn't be bothered with the whole shaving every couple of days routine. After nearly three weeks I had a pretty decent beard and moustache going. I played like that in our first two games, but shaved the beard off before our third. We were heading back to our camp after that match, thinking ahead to our next assignment in Rosario, when the coach said to me: "Mario, why don't you get rid of the moustache and see if your luck changes?

The coach had been over to see me before the World Cup to see how I was getting on in Valencia. At that time I was clean-shaven. "You didn't have a beard or moustache when you were playing for Valencia," he said to me, "so why don't you shave when we get to Rosario and you might start scoring again?" I don't know if it was luck or coincidence, but I took his advice and ended up scoring twice that day [against Poland]. That marked the start of a new chapter for me. After that every time he saw me, he'd say: "You're due a shave today Mario aren't you?" That was the famous story of the goals and the moustache.

Can we move on to your most important achievement: winning the 1978 FIFA World Cup. What do you recall about the Final against the Netherlands?
[Daniel] Passarella and I used to watch all the games together. He knew that [Rene] Van de Kerkhof used to wear a bandage on his wrist, and when he went to the centre circle for the coin toss, Daniel told the ref that the Dutchman had a plaster cast on his hand. He insisted that he could be dangerous, that someone's nose might get broken. Van de Kerkhof said that it wasn't a plaster cast, it was just a wrist protector, and they argued for half an hour until the officials finally got him to take it off and realised there was nothing underneath [that could be dangerous]. He wrapped it up again straight away and the match kicked off. It delayed the Final by half an hour!

I remember taking the field and seeing all the ticker tape, which is typical in Argentina, and I recall hearing the national anthems. Once the game starts however, you forget everything else and you have to focus completely on the game. We really struggled during the opening minutes because the Dutch players were breaking through with ease, whether it was [Rob] Rensenbrink, [Johnny] Rep or somebody else. El Pato (The Duck) Fillol pulled off three or four great stops and we could easily have gone one or two goals down. As the minutes ticked by we gradually started holding our own and were able to get the first goal. From that point on we didn't exactly take our foot off the pedal, but we knew that we held the initiative. Then [Dick] Nanninga got the equaliser with about seven or eight minutes to go, and then came that famous shot from Rensenbrink that hit the post.

You just mentioned the first goal, what was that like?
Of course, it was a goal to savour. With the celebrations and making your way back to your own half for the restart, 30 or 40 seconds can easily go by. But when it's a final you have to get your mind back on the game straight away because you haven't won yet, you've just scored a goal. The same thing happened with Rensenbrink shot off the post: the ball bounced, El Pato came rushing out and it hit the post. When [Americo] Gallego belted the ball away, it triggered an explosion of noise that sounded like we'd scored ourselves.

What went through your mind at that point?
Nothing! There wasn't time to think. Later you realise how much you stood to lose had the ball gone in, but in the five or ten seconds it takes to happen you don't have time to think. The only thing you have time for is to breathe deeply and tell yourself the scare has passed.

Could you sense the realisation in the air of how close it had been to a goal?
The Estadio Monumental went deathly silent. It was like a fire alarm had emptied the place, you could've heard a pin drop. Then when we cleared the ball, the place erupted as if we'd scored. I don't know how fair it would have been if we'd lost that match. That said, it's goals that win games, and if that one had gone in, it would've been their second in just eight minutes. Realistically, that would have been game over.

Leopoldo Luque and Osvaldo Ardiles were involved in your first goal, right?
Yes, Luque gave the ball to me because he had a defender on him. I remember taking the ball into the area and when [Jan] Jongbloed came charging out I slid in and poked it with my left. The ball went underneath his body and into the net.

Were your goals usually like that?
Not exactly, because I never used to go to ground while scoring goals. But I didn't have any choice on that occasion. If I hadn't done so, I wouldn't have reached the ball. It was getting away from me, the keeper was coming out, and I caught it just as he was throwing himself to the ground, because he was trying to make himself big and cover all the angles. I can still remember the explosion of noise reverberating around the stadium.

And the second?
The second was very similar, and also came from the left. The move started out with Bertoni finding Ardiles, who in turn fed it to Luque, who picked me out with a ball though the middle. The finish in itself wasn't difficult, but getting into that position was. I remember dribbling round two defenders and the goalkeeper coming towards me. I struck the ball and it came off the keeper's midriff and bounced up, but I'd kept going and had to backtrack as it was coming down. I just managed to get the sole of my boot to it before the two Dutch defenders who were running towards me, and the ball bobbled over the line. There was still a quarter of an hour to go, however, so we couldn't relax by any means. It wasn't the prettiest goal I scored, but it was certainly the most thrilling. The crowd were willing it over the line. It was a goal of real suspense, and it finally sneaked in.

Once the game was over, the celebrations were something special.
They were very carefree. In Argentinian football, whether it's the domestic championship or the World Cup, it's perfectly normal for the fans to come on to the pitch after the final whistle. That's why we couldn't celebrate the win like they do in Europe, where the winners are handed the Cup and do a lap of honour. In Argentina I didn't do a lap of honour, although I think that Passarella, Fillol and a few others managed it. But it was almost impossible; there were so many people. Then we went to the dressing rooms and had to wait a while before getting changed and going to the presentation dinner.

Some of your team-mates like Bertoni and [Alberto] Tarantini told us that Passarella...
(Interrupts question) ...grabbed the Cup and wouldn't let it go!

Did that really happen?
He always played with his elbows flailing around, and that's what he was like with the Cup, no-one could get it off him (laughs). [Omar] Larrosa, Bertoni and a couple of others were zealously monopolising the Cup. I never got to touch it once, not even when we went back to the hotel for dinner, as they wouldn't let us. I don't know if someone had hidden it or if someone was looking after it, but, to be honest with you, I didn't care. I knew we'd done what had to do: we'd won it. The public were happy and we were satisfied, not so much with having done our jobs, but with having brought some joy to our people and put Argentinian football back where it belonged. We'd always had great national teams but had never gone on to win the title. We were the first ones to take that step.


Do you think that the win meant more because of what was happening in the country at the time?
It was a difficult time, but we weren't really aware of what was going on. That only really became clear after 1982, nearly 1983, with the Falklands War. That was when the lid came off everything. Prior to that, the only ones who really knew were those involved. I was playing in Spain, and when you're abroad bad news reaches you much faster than good. You'd watch the news, read the papers every so often and still you wouldn't be any the wiser. It was all kept very quiet, but of course, we didn't really know. We just did everything we could to bring some joy to the people. We gave them the opportunity to take to the streets to celebrate, to vent their frustrations and to shout whatever they wanted to.

(As the Trophy is handed over) I'm going to touch it now, 30 years later...

28 years...
Finally after 28 years I get to touch it. Thanks to you I can finally lay hands on it. It's heavy, isn't it? But it's lovely, really beautiful. I remember one of the many different presents sent to my home after that win was a replica of this made of chocolate. It was immense and I couldn't eat it... I mean it was delicious and pure chocolate, you know, completely solid. Anyway I brought it out to the patio, where all the kids were gathered, and they devoured it in no time!

How would you rate it from an aesthetic point of view?
It's beautiful. The Champions League one is nice for example, but it's a cup. This is a trophy as opposed to a cup. So many people have tried to win this and failed. Some people were fortunate enough to win it, and I'm one of them. Now I can touch it after all those years. At least I can say it happened in Argentina.

Could you compare it to any other trophy?
No, I think that any trophy you win with the national team is beyond compare. The Copa Libertadores is important in South America, as is the Champions League in Europe, but the World Cup... I think that women only started watching World Cups on TV from 1978 onwards. Before then there'd be no chance of getting a woman to watch a match with you. But colour television came out that year and more and more women are starting to sit down and watch. The World Cup's much more important that any other competition. It only happens every four years and it's so difficult to win.