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Super Mario

THE 1978 World Cup in Argentina is remembered in different ways by different people.

Mario Kempes celebrates after opening the scoring against the Netherlands in the World Cup final of 1978
Mario Kempes celebrates after opening the scoring against the Netherlands in the World Cup final of 1978

It all depends where they sit here at ESPN's huge global headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. At one end of the long, cubicle-filled area of building three [of 15] you will find a couple of likely lads from Ayrshire - European Cup winner Steve Nicol and Craig Burley, the last man to score for Scotland at a World Cup.

Nicol, then 16, remembers watching Archie Gemmill's wonder goal with his parents at the family home in Troon. Burley, six, reckons he was tucked up in bed in Cumnock while Gemmill was embarking on that mazy run and his only memory of the tournament is a vague ­recollection of being allowed to stay up late to watch the final.

At the other end of our ESPN office on the second floor, usually as quiet as a mouse, sits Mario Alberto Kempes. And El Matador has a slightly better recollection of the 1978 World Cup final…

"I was lucky enough to open the scoring in the match against the Netherlands and it looked like being the only goal of the game," he said. "Then they equalised with eight minutes to go and we had to regroup for extra time. But our fans were magnificent and never got on our backs.

"When I scored again just before the end of the first period of extra time the noise inside Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires was incredible, as loud as anything I can remember. And when Daniel Bertoni scored our third goal with just five minutes of extra time remaining we knew that the World Cup belonged to Argentina for the very first time.

"People still ask if Bertoni prevented me from getting a hat-trick, but I do not see it that way. I played a one-two with him and he gave me a great return ball. I would have been through on goal but my touch was poor. Thankfully Daniel's momentum carried him towards me and he was able to take it off me immediately, chest the ball down and roll it into the net beyond Jan Jongbloed.

"If he had not continued his run after giving me the return pass I am not sure if there even would have been a third goal."

On my first day working at ESPN in September 2010 I remember being introduced to a gentleman called Mario. He was probably one of around 50 people I met in the office that day. So many faces and so many names. There was no surname offered by Mario. Just a polite nod, a strong handshake and a short greeting in Spanish. It wasn't until a few days later when I was told by a colleague that Mario's surname was Kempes that I realised I was working with a proper football legend.

More than three-and-a-half years later, Mario's knowledge of the English language remains on a par with my grasp of Spanish which is basic at best. Getting Kempes to agree to do this interview was the easy part. Finding a multilingual colleague to make sense of Google's literal translation of his answers was rather more of a challenge…

This was what I really wanted to know: what did he do with his winner's medal and where does he keep the jersey he wore in the 1978 World Cup final?

Now if you put his reply, 'Por ahí estarán', into Google translate the exact translation is simply 'There will be…' - which is of absolutely no help whatsoever. Perseverance, however, led me to establish that what he meant was: 'They have got to be somewhere'.

But where?

"I honestly have no idea. Daniel Passarella [the Argentina captain] asked us all for our jerseys after the final and put them all in a big bag. I have no idea what he did with that big bag and I have not seen my shirt since!

"As for the medal - I honestly do not know where it is. I have worked in so many countries over the years that I must have moved house about 20 times. I think it got lost during one of those many moves. I am sure it is somewhere. I just do not know where."

He does, however, have plenty of memories of the tournament, where he finished top scorer with six goals, and also of the final at the River Plate Stadium.

"I will never forget the joy of the public in Argentina each time we won a game, especially the reaction when we won the final. I actually got off to a really slow start in the tournament and I failed to score in any of our opening three games against Hungary, France and Italy.

"I get asked a lot which of the six goals I scored was my favourite and people are surprised when I tell them it wasn't either of the two I got in the final.

"My first goal of the tournament - against Poland in our opening group game of the second round - was my most important because it got me off the mark. It was a huge relief to finally score."

There was rarely a scowl on the face of this World Cup winner throughout our chat. Until, that is, a furrowed brow appeared when I asked him if he could compare himself - the hero of 1978 - with the man Argentina are pinning their hopes on to be their hero in 2014, Lionel Messi.

"It's impossible [to compare]," he replied. "Times have changed. Football has changed. It's different the way the game is played now and the way we played the game. I will let others try to compare us."

His shortest answer by far, and certainly the one he felt most uncomfortable answering.

So we move from the past to the present. Back then Mario Kempes made headlines on the pitch. This year he will be reporting on the headlines as part of the ESPN Deportes team on site in Brazil. But will he be reporting on a third World Cup triumph for a Messi-inspired Argentina? He laughs. "Ha! I refuse to think that far ahead. But I do know that Argentina have a really good team as well as having the best player in the world.

"Anything is possible. Although I don't think it is fair to identify specific players, because these guys play well as a team, it is impossible not to talk about our hopes for winning another World Cup without talking about Messi.

"He is the greatest player in the world right now, of that there is no doubt in my mind, but World Cups are won by the entire group playing well and not just one individual. There is no point in Messi trying to do everything himself because if the supporting act does not perform then we will not win anything.

It is no surprise that the top two in the betting for this summer's World Cup are both from South America: hosts Brazil (3/1) and Argentina (5/1). On the six previous occasions the tournament has been played on that continent the winners have been South American. But Kempes is not ruling out the possibility of a European success this time round.

"I think there are five nations in with a very good chance of winning - Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Argentina. However if Brazil hit top form it will be very difficult for any other team to win. Football has changed so much since the last time South America hosted a World Cup when we won it back in 1978.

"These days there are foreign players in just about every top league in the world and they get to experience different conditions all the time. Therefore I don't think playing this World Cup on this continent will be as much of a help to South American nations as it used to be."

The thought of Argentina winning a third World Cup is something that has preoccupied the minds of millions of football fans in the country since Maradona and co triumphed in Mexico in 1986. And with their nation being on the opposite side of the draw from Brazil, the hosts and bitter rivals, the possibility of an Argentina-Brazil final exists. That scenario would set up the ultimate triumph for one nation - at the Maracana no less - and the ultimate in misery for the other.

"All the pressure is on Brazil. Every team selection by Luis Felipe Scolari will be scrutinised intensely. Every performance will be analysed to death by the media. Scolari said he expects Brazil to perform and he expects his team not to fail under pressure. That's a big statement to make. We were under pressure to perform in 1978 for our own fans and believe me it is not easy. The Brazil players will soon find that out. They are human beings. They are not machines. Machines can break down under pressure. But so can humans…"

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