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Few players have ever enjoyed almost total domination of a FIFA World Cup, but one man who knows exactly how that feels is Argentina’s Mario Kempes, known as El Toro and El Matador.
The Bell Ville-born striker made the 1978 tournament very much how own: he scored twice in the final, a 3-1 win over the Netherlands, and received the Golden Boot as top goalscorer. He also won the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament, making him one of only three players to have won all three awards at a single World Cup, along with Garrincha in 1962, and Paolo Rossi in 1982.
Kempes’s six goals helped La Albiceleste win their first World Cup title – and on home soil to boot – forever entrenching him as a football legend in Argentina, and one of the greats of the World Cup.
The triumph, though, was tainted by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina at the time. “Of course it was a difficult situation,” Kempes told the Observer years later, but as the only player in the team based outside Argentina (he was on the books of Valencia at the time), the political context was something he felt far removed from.
“I arrived on 8 May and left again on 15 July. I was practically never in Argentina during the time of the military regime. Within the camp we were playing for ourselves, and then for the people and then for Argentine football as a whole - that was our perspective.”
After the final, as the country partied ecstatically, Kempes quietly slipped away: “The team went to the ceremony, we had a couple of glasses of wine and then at about half-three we went back to our training camp to pack our clothes. I took my suitcases and headed back to my parents' house in Rosario about 300 kilometres from Buenos Aires.
“Two of my team-mates were from there as well, so the three of us drove back together. I arrived and got my bags and my medal out of the car. It was before seven in the morning, there was no one there. I felt very calm. When I went home, my parents were still asleep. I had a coffee and went to bed.”
Such a humble celebration for a gargantuan achievement summed up Kempes, who was a down-to-earth professional who allied professionalism and practicality to his immense talent. Little wonder, then, that he scored over 300 goals in his club career and was the key man in a World Cup triumph that finally put Argentine football at the very top of the game.
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