There can be no doubting Mario Alberto Kempes’ place in the history of Argentinian football. Known for his bravery and eye-catching flowing locks, the free-scoring front man played a prominent role in La Albiceleste’s triumph on home soil at the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™, showcasing his finishing skills with six goals to end the tournament as leading marksman.
“I wasn’t your average striker because I didn’t play as an out-and-out centre-forward,” said the 59-year-old former Rosario Central, River Plate and Valencia striker, who scored all his goals at Argentina 1978 after the first phase. Two of them came in the Final against the Netherlands, a decisive brace that elevated him to the pantheon of his country’s all-time greats.
FIFA.com caught up with El Matador at last December’s Brazil 2014 Final Draw and asked him to share his views on the big event this June, the chances of success for Alejandro Sabella’s team and the pressure that A Seleção will face as tournament hosts.
FIFA.com: What did you think of Argentina’s performance in the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil?
Mario Kempes: They did very well indeed, although getting started can always be tricky. In the end Sabella got them on course, and having (Lionel) Messi in a good frame of mind really helped the team get going. But obviously it’s not all about Messi. It’s important to keep the whole team happy.
How difficult is it to keep everyone smiling in a team with so many high-profile players?
It’s very hard and you need to be very good at what you do. All the players play for big teams and nobody wants to travel 13 or 14,000 miles just to sit on the bench, and not just for one game but for two. But I think that Sabella, like any other coach, will try to get everyone involved in some way or other in the friendlies and make them all feel like they’re playing a part in the team.
What does it mean to a player to win the FIFA World Cup? It must feel different now to what it did back in 1978?
No, not at all. I think there’s more of a spotlight these days on everything you’ve achieved. When you’re a player and you win the World Cup and other titles you don’t get the chance to enjoy the moment because of the media scrum. You end up getting tired of it. But when the years go by and you look back on it all, then you understand just what it is that you achieved, that we achieved. Looking beyond the personal side of things, if you don’t have the support of the whole team, then you can’t win anything.
What kind of player was Mario Kempes?
I was a different kind of player compared to [Gabriel] Batistuta or Gerd Muller, in the way they moved into the penalty area. I wasn’t skilful in there – I needed space to play. I wasn’t skilful at all…but I’m not saying I was that bad either! I used to take my chances. I was more of a midfielder and therefore a weird striker. I wasn’t a No9, as everyone believes today. Every time I played as a No9, I failed. Coming from deep I had more space, a better vision of the game, and more time on the ball, which I enjoyed the most.
When the years go by and you look back on it all, then you understand just what it is that you achieved.
A lot of people are wondering how Brazil will cope with the pressure of playing at home. How important is it to have the fans behind you in a competition as big as this?
It’s different because even though some people will tell you that there is no pressure and that the fans get behind you, it’s not actually like that. I mean, you’ll get that support as long as things go well. But if they don’t … I think that it’s up to the people down there, the team, to excite the people up there, the ones in the stands, and to get them going. It shouldn't be the other way round, unless it’s a final, and there’s a 50-50 split. In the group games, that wave of enthusiasm starts on the pitch and works its way up. There are going to be times when the home team will feel that the other side is giving them the runaround and that they need support. But unless you get your fans going, that support is not going to come.
What kind of tournament are you expecting in June?
I hope we don’t see the same old thing. I hope we don’t see defence-minded teams that just hit on the break. There’ll be one or two, especially among the new boys and the teams who don’t have much pedigree. But I’m expecting plenty of entertainment and end-to-end football. And I hope we see the world’s best players perform in every game. Not for the whole 90 minutes, but from time to time at least.
What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word “Brazil”?
Samba, happiness, carnival beaches and football!
Do Argentina have a realistic chance of winning?
They have a chance although there’s a big difference between the front line and the back line. But Sabella has put his faith in these players, in the goalkeeper who’s not playing for his club (Sergio Romero, who is AS Monaco’s second-choice keeper) and in the defenders, and we should trust him.
Do you think the team relies too much on Messi?
You can put the players on the pitch but they always move and systems change. I think, though, that Messi has to be a special case and that the other nine outfield players should support him. One player on his own is not going to win you the World Cup. That’s impossible. He can have an important part to play, no question, but there’s no way he can win every game for you by himself.