Playing a World Cup finals on home soil is generally seen as an advantage, but for some players it’s proved more of a burden.
The seemingly ever-relaxed and affable Mario Kempes may not have given the impression he was feeling the pressure of being the poster boy for Argentina in 1978 – he finished the tournament as top goalscorer and with a winners’ medal around his neck – but, as he confesses, the reality was rather different.
“The problem was not the pressure of the fans’ expectations, but the pressure we put on ourselves – we felt that we had to win,” he recalled. “After we lost to Italy in the first group stage at Estadio Monumental, it seemed that the expectations boiled over. We were shocked. We had to leave Buenos Aires, but in the end that proved to be a very good thing, because Rosario is one of the places where football is felt more intensively.”
To help quell the nerves, Kempes admits he was smoking. “Not many, maybe 10-12 cigarettes per day. Many of us did. We would share, as a superstition, one cigarette with [third goalkeeper] Hector Baley at the back of the team bus on the way to the stadium.”
Dodging the junta
The then-23-year-old striker was plying his trade at Valencia at the time, making him the only member of the Albiceleste squad to play his club football overseas – and this was more than just a curiosity.
Kempes was the last player to escape the transfer lockdown imposed by Argentina’s military junta at the request of national team coach Cesar Luis Menotti, who wanted to keep his squad close in the run-up to the tournament. From September 1, 1976, players under the age of 28 could not be transferred away without his authorisation. It was El Matador’s exit to Spain that prompted this law.
Therefore, in the eyes of the Argentine public, Kempes was almost obliged to be the saviour, given it was he who played in the stronger Spanish league week in, week out.
“I started every match knowing that this could be my day,” he said. “It’s like in life; you can have a bad business idea, but then you have a new one the next day and you just go for it. In one game I’d have defenders completely wiping me out, but three days later I’d have my chance to get revenge. What had happened a few days earlier would never affect my confidence.”
The tension from a de facto government that needed a World Cup victory to extend its cruel reign, which included torturing and killing citizens, will always be an issue players are reticent to discuss openly. ‘We didn’t know anything, we were locked down, we were the last to know about the disappeared,’ is the usual formulaic response.
Rumours that Argentina’s second-round win over Peru was fixed persist to this day, but even giving their South American rivals a 6-0 shellacking and securing their place in the final was not enough to adequately relax the host nation’s squad.
In fact, a small group found an unlikely way to unwind on the eve of the biggest match of their lives. “Not many people know this, but before the final, Hector Baley wanted to go fishing,” said El Matador.
“I didn’t even like fishing, but he still sent me to ask Menotti for his permission. [Midfielder] Americo Gallego also came with us.
“In the end, it was a good way to lower the anxiety,” continued the striker. “We left in the middle of the night. Baley had managed to get some rods and pastries.”
The trio found an abandoned ship in the Parana River from where they fished for a couple of hours. “Nobody saw us,” said Kempes. “It was very cold because it was 5am in the middle of winter.
“We went back to the training camp with a handful of fish that we passed on to the cook. Our table had a special menu before the final. All the other players couldn’t believe it. It’s not something that could have happened today...”
Angling for victory
Despite the unexpected seafood on offer, tension among the players on the morning of the final was so great that, in his pre-final briefing, Menotti decided to broach the possibility of his side losing in an attempt to ease the self-imposed pressure.
“It was the shortest talk ever,” said Kempes. “He said, ‘Whatever happens today, you have won the title for me. You’re all champions. Thank you.’
“We were all fired up after that. Whatever happens? After all this effort? No, we will win.”
After beating the Netherlands 3-1 the final, and scoring two more goals, Kempes returned to his hometown of Cordoba for a little rest and relaxation. His method? Fishing, of course.
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