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May 17, 2014

World Cup memories: Mario Kempes

Mario Kempes scored twice in the 1978 final versus Holland to lead host country Argentina to their first ever World Cup.
Mario Kempes scored twice in the 1978 final versus Holland to lead host country Argentina to their first ever World Cup.
ESPN FC writer Roger Bennett visited with players from past World Cups to collect their memories of playing on football's biggest stage. The following is an excerpt of Roger's conversation with former Argentina great Mario Kempes who led the Albiceleste to the 1978 title in his home country. Kempes recounts the incredible atmosphere during the final versus The Netherlands and how that first World Cup title earned Argentina worldwide respect.

"Once we stepped outside of the locker room, we were really focused at the challenge we had in front of us... We knew that we had a big responsibility, not because of the military dictatorship but down to the obligation... to our fans.

Back then, people had no clue about what was really going on in our country. After the truth became public, around 1982, we got to know. Before that, only the people that were affected knew first-hand what was going on.

We just got together to play soccer. After we discovered the truth, we realized that maybe soccer could not erase such pain, but somehow the match, those 90 minutes, helped people to take a brief pause and think about something else. Coach [Cesar] Menotti would give his pre-game talk before we left for the stadium so once we were inside of the locker room were left to our own business. He had emphasized we were there to give Argentinian soccer what it really deserved: To be on top, for all the right reasons. In the tunnel, we felt relaxed. We knew that the team had done everything as best as we could. There was just one more step ahead of us before we could claim the title. But we were also pretty respectful of the Netherlands, because their team had qualified for the final for the second straight World Cup and were more experienced than us. But respect was mutual, since we were the host nation. There was an incredible atmosphere in the stadium, but that was pretty normal in Argentina. Every time the national team took to the field, we had the confetti shower and the ticker-tape thing. I scored the first goal. I was right on the edge of the box. I received the pass, went through a couple of defenders, and when (Dutch goalkeeper) Jan Jongbloed came out trying to block me, I just dropped to the ground, and tipped the ball with my left foot to score. My second goal -- scored in extra time -- was similar. I got a pass from Daniel Bertoni, and after I kicked the ball, it bounced upwards off Jongbloed, and I was quicker than the defenders by a mere tenth of a second, to score again. Holland tied the game -- we had trained over and over to catch an opponent off-sides on a corner kicks. But that day, after the corner kick, we all pushed out, but Omar Larrosa was left behind and Dick Nanninga scored to allow the Netherlands to tie the game. It was a tough blow, because we thought that we had almost won the game, and they got us good with that one. But, on the positive side, that allowed us to go to overtime and helped me win the scoring title.

In extra time, the Netherlands could have easily scored once or twice in the opening minutes, but once we were able to possess the ball, we began to get the upper hand. The game felt so in the balance. It was 50-50.

For our third goal, I felt somebody pull my jersey, and I immediately raised my hand asking for a penalty kick. But it was my teammate Daniel Bertoni who had grabbed me! He took the ball away and scored. Right there, we felt that the World Cup was ours.

That squad was very good. Menotti had built a team that was very balanced. I had been the only player on a team outside of Argentina (Sevilla) but right after the World Cup, a lot of them went to different foreign leagues... and became icons. Winning that title changed the history of Argentinean soccer because it earned our team worldwide respect. We have two World Cup titles, the one from 1978 and the one from 1986. Our teams keep getting better and better, but still are maybe a couple of steps short from gaining even more respect."