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Apr 18, 2005

Maradona 'absolutely the best'

Mario Kempes is one of the greatest strikers in Argentina's history. He was an integral part of the 1978 squad that won the World Cup. Kempes won the Golden Boot as the leading scorer in that tournament with six goals.

Kempes began his career in Argentina with Instituto Cordoba in 1973 and then Rosario Central before making a move to Valencia in 1976, where he continued to rack up the goals. Of Kempes, the equally prolific Gabriel Batistuta once said, "I was bewitched by [Mario] Kempes, a real champion."

Kempes is currently a soccer analyst for ESPN covering the Primera Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League.

JC: The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was played during a period of political turmoil. Did the military dictatorship put pressure on the squad to win the '78 World Cup?

MK: No, none at all. The team never felt any pressure, all we did was play soccer. The military were often present at the practices and they would bring their sons to watch and shake hands with us, but we never had any undue pressure.

JC: Do you still keep in touch with any of your teammates from that team?

MK: I talk to some of them now and again, but right now the distance is too far to communicate with them regularly - but I'm closest to Ossie Ardiles.

JC: On that note regarding Ardiles, did you ever consider joining him and Ricky Villa at Tottenham in England?

MK: No, not at all [laughs] - but seriously, there was never an offer from Tottenham so the opportunity never arose.

JC: Given that you played for them, presumably you still follow Valencia?

MK: Yes, I follow them closely and root for them to win the league, although I also keep close tabs on my former team Instituto Cordoba in Argentina.

JC: What do you think about Claudio Ranieri's firing at Valencia?

MK: I think they made a mistake initially by hiring him. It was an extremely rushed decision given the circumstances of Rafa Benitez's departure. While he was at Valencia he switched around with the tactics too much and ruined their rhythm. Now the team is struggling and it'll be hard for them to get back to where they were, and a large part of that is due to Ranieri.

JC: How much of Valencia's slump can be attributed to Ranieri benching Pablo Aimar?

MK: Ranieri felt Aimar was too slight in stature to play a hectic schedule, he didn't think that Aimar could handle playing three games a week. As a result he preferred other players, but without Aimar in the lineup Valencia's creativity was stifled.

JC: Going back to the World Cup, compare and contrast the '78 and '86 Argentinean teams?

MK: The key difference was that the 1978 team was more of a team - the 1986 team was built more around one player. Bilardo made Maradona the focal point of that team.

JC: But who would win if those teams played each other?

MK: [laughs] Argentina.

JC: Some people think that there's a huge contrast between soccer of your generation and today. It's argued that great players of yesteryear couldn't function in the current climate due to the different pace of the game and fitness levels. What do you think?

MK: Great players are great players in any era and would be able to perform accordingly. It's true that the game is much faster today and the fitness levels may be higher, but people also need to remember that there are many players today that could not play in the 70s or 80s. The game was different then, when I used to play, the ball ran more than the players and to some extent there was greater technical skill. Today too many players rely on athleticism and simply running up and down the field.

JC: In the '78 World Cup Nelinho of Brazil scored one of the best goals I've ever seen, what's the greatest goal you ever seen in the World Cup?

MK: The greatest goal I've seen was actually in the 1988 European Championships by Marco Van Basten against Russia.

JC: I'm assuming Maradona was the greatest player you've ever played with?

MK: Maradona was absolutely the best - but Johan Cruyff was the best player I ever played against.

JC: Who was your boyhood idol?

MK: Pele, without question.

JC: Not many people know this, but you've had a fairly successful managerial career in far-flung places like Albania and Indonesia. Given your credentials people may wonder why you ended up in those places, considering that nowadays ex-players with lesser resumes are getting jobs in mainstream leagues.

MK: When I decided to enter management, for whatever reason, those were the jobs I was offered, so I took them. Although they were small leagues, the opportunities were exciting and I enjoyed my time there.

JC: Argentina were many people's favorites in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup but ultimately disappointed. What do you think went wrong? Was it the system?.

MK: In 1998 the team played well - their downfall was one mistake against Holland. 2002 was a completely different story and Marcelo Bielsa was largely to blame - in the game against Sweden for instance, after the Swedes scored, Bielsa looked at his bench and looked lost and unsure of what to do.

JC: Presumably you're in favor of Jose Pekerman replacing Bielsa as Argentina's manager then?

MK: It's been a good start for him so far but it's hard to judge him until the 2006 World Cup is over.

JC: Right now, on current form, it's arguable that Juan Riquelme is the best number 10 in La Liga - what do you think accounts for the dramatic difference in form for him between his time at Barcelona and now at Villarreal?

MK: A large part of the problem was his former coach at Barcelona, Louis Van Gaal. He didn't give Riquelme much of a chance. Van Gaal never wanted Riquelme from the beginning and would often give him limited minutes and showed little patience with him.

JC: Riquelme's loan period is up in the Summer - should Barcelona keep him - can he coexist with Ronaldinho in the same lineup?

MK: There's no question that they could play together and be an incredible attacking force. The problem is when it comes to defending, both are so offensive-minded that it could cause problems.

JC: Riquelme's the current Argentine playmaker and a favorite of Pekerman's from youth team days - who do you think should be the Argentine number 10?

MK: I think it boils down to who is the most in-form player at present. Aimar's struggling right now and is just beginning to get back to that level, but you also can't go wrong with players like Riquelme and D'Alessandro (Wolfsburg) in that role.

JC: Who's your favorite player right now?

MK: There' a lot of great players out there but right now Samuel Eto'o is one of the hottest talents.

JC: Every so often we inevitably hear about the 'new' Maradona, who do you think if anyone can assume this mantle?

MK: No one. It's impossible to compare anyone to Diego. These days whenever a player has one or two good games, he gets compared to Maradona. You have to compare them after they end their careers not after a couple of games.

JC: That being the case, who's the next Mario Kempes then?

MK: [laughs].

JC: The last couple of World Cups there's been a lot of debate about who should be the starting striker for Argentina, i.e. Gabriel Batistuta or Hernan Crespo - who do you think the lead striker should be?

MK: It should be Crespo or Javier Saviola. Another name to watch for is Rodrigo Palacios from Boca Junior.

JC: What's your take on the recent Leandro Desabato situation? (Desabato was arrested and detained after a Copa Libertadores match where he allegedly directed racist insults at a Brazilian player).

MK: Obviously he made a huge mistake. However the way he was treated, being arrested on the field and treated like a criminal was a bit excessive. Typically in soccer, what's said during the game stays on the field.

JC: Favorite goal of all time?

MK: For the occasion, it would have to be the second in the World Cup final - but there are plenty of goals for Valencia that I remember fondly too.

JC: What's your opinion on Carlos Tevez's move to Corinthians? A lot of people are surprised he went to Brazil instead of Europe.

MK: Corinthians has had an influx of new capital from foreign investors so they can pay Tevez as much as he would make in Europe. Having said that, I believe the investors brought Tevez to Corinthians with the intent to sell him on for a profit at some point to Europe - maybe Russia for example.

JC: How shocked were you by Greece's victory in the European Championships. Did you think at any point in the tournament that they could win?

MK: I was as surprised as anyone else by Greece's victory. I doubt anyone anywhere thought they were capable of winning the European Championships. But the thing to remember about Greece is that they played very well as a team and although they were criticized for style, in many ways they played a typically German or Italian style.

The problem was that they received far more criticism for it than the Italians do when they play that way. Greece would score a goal and then retreat into a defensive shell, it's not pretty but it was effective.

JC: What was the greatest team in your opinion to never win the World Cup - was it the 1982 Brazil team?

MK: I would say the 1974 Dutch team.

JC: Do you watch MLS at all? Is there a U.S. player that stands out in your mind?

MK: I haven't had a chance to watch MLS much but will be covering the Chivas USA vs. L.A. Galaxy game this weekend, so I'm looking forward to that. In terms of U.S. players, Eddie Johnson impresses me.

JC: Ok, thanks for your time.

MK: My pleasure.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com