It's 1977, and with the World Cup on home soil less than twelve months away, Argentina coach Cesar Menotti is getting desperate....
The More gloomy the fans in Argentina became over the recent series of prestige friendlies, the more optimistic has become Mario Kempes over his chances of returning home next summer to lead the World Cup bid.
A few months ago the chances of Kempes, who joined Valencia from Rosario Central a year previously, being drafted into Cesar Menotti's squad, looked minute. In fact, in March when Kempes met Menotti while Argentina were playing in the Real Madrid 75th anniversary tournament, the Argentine coach never even bothered to raise the subject with the 22-year-old centre forward with legs like tree trunks.
Since then everything has changed.
Argentina flopped in Madrid, then suffered a chastening time in Buenos Aires against West Germany, England, Scotland and France. It became plain that the home based players weren't up to the job. And Menotti, for the first time, let it be known that he is thinking of going back on his refusal to call up emigrants.
First in line for the call-up is Kempes, top scorer in the Spanish league in his first season - hitting two in the last game, away to champions Atletico Madrid, to total 24 and pip Espańol Barcelona's Rafael Maranon by one goal. A glorious climax to the season for a man who started it badly.
Kempes, who had cost an Argentine record £340,000, was a big disappointment when he made his first appearances for Valencia in the summer tournaments. Kempes admitted it: "I was playing badly, I missed several chances, even a penalty. After only a few games people at the club must have been thinking they'd made a big mistake.
"But you must remember these were my first games. I wasn't match fit. And I barely knew my new team-mates. There was no understanding between us. I was affected as well by the weather. I left Argentina in winter, and arrived here in the full heat of the summer.
"Anyway, there's not the same urgency or purpose about summer tournament games."
But unimpressive as he was in the pre season, it took Kempes just three matches to hit the goal standard in the league, with two in a 4-1 win over Espańol Barcelona. He was off.
With his parents and 17-year-old younger brother Hugo Sergio coming over to Spain to look after him, Kempes was quick now to settle into the style of the team and, particularly, with fellow strikers Johnny Rep from Holland and the costly Paraguayan, Carlos Diarte.
At first Diarte was the favourite of the fans. He had just cost £400,000 from Zaragoza and was as controversial a character off the field as he was unpredictable on it. The season didn't go well for Valencia. Despite a flying start they finished seventh, and coach Heriberto Herrera was sacked along the way.
As the season went on, Diarte's star waned and at the end of the 34 games it was clear who the real star is: Kempes, who cost £60,000 less than Diarte but scored eight goals more - and Diarte converted five penalties.
A great start for the boy from Bell Ville, a small town equidistant from Buenos Aires and Cordoba, and who learned his football like Alfredo di Stefano and Enrico Sivori before him - kicking a can through the streets and over the waste ground. Always Kempes wanted to be a centre forward, right back to the days when, at ten, he enrolled in his first team -Talleres of Bell Ville - and played in the local youth league's fourth division.
"Everyone thinks it's the glamour position to play,” says Kempes. "It is, up to a point ... but if you miss a couple then everyone's on your back."
Inside the provincial leagues Kempes graduated quickly until, in 1973, he joined Instituto Cordoba. He played only 15 games, scoring eleven goals, and almost at once his career had taken off.
Kempes, born on July 15, 1954, moved at 19 to first division Rosario Central. He announced his arrival by smashing a hat-trick past former South American champions Estudiantes de Ia Plata, and within a matter of weeks was thrown into Argentina's World Cup squad preparing for the qualifying tie in the high-altitude Bolivian capital of La Paz. Argentina won 1-0, but Kempes didn't see the game through. At 19 he didn't have the stamina, and made way through the game for Ricardo Bochini. That was to prove the first of 23 internationals which would bring 14 goals to add to the sackful he was scoring in the league.
In 1974 he scored 29 goals for Rosario in 34 games, and the next year 35 in 50. In 1976 he grabbed 21 goals in 22 games before his transfer to Valencia - a deal put through amid ridiculous secrecy.
Valencia had just been let down over the signing of West Germany's Rainer Bonhof. They had hoped to carry the deal through before anyone could object, but news leaked out and in the end Bonhof's club, Borussia Moenchengladbach, persuaded Bonhof to agree not to leave until after the 1978 World Cup.
Very disappointed, Valencia decided to go for Kempes -and make sure that this time there were no leaks. At the end of July Rosario Central issued a statement saying that Valencia's offer had been turned down. Four days later talks started in earnest, and on August 7 the deal was confirmed.
Still Valencia were on their guard. They brought decoys off the plane bringing him into Spain, and tried to smuggle him through a side door of the airport to avoid the Press. And thus, once signed, began the chain of events which bring Kempes back to the verge of Argentina's World Cup team - the team he thought he had left for good when, after his move to Spain, the AFA decided to ban transfers abroad, and Menotti vowed he would stick to home-based men.
Kempes says: ''I'm hopeful, but not over optimistic," of a recall for next year. But there is no doubt that he has learned a lot in Spain - not just about technique either. Kempes again: ”I’ve found that if you hold the ball too long in Spain, the defenders will let you know all about it - on the backs of your ankles. But while I've been here I have lost some weight, and that's helped me immensely."
Back in 1974 - Kempes’ first World Cup Finals - he looked cumbersome at times. Not that he didn't make a good enough impression. Before the Finals he led Argentina's attack at Wembley and scored the two goals which brought them back from 2-0 down after 53 minutes to a draw.
Kempes, only playing because Golden Boot winner Hector Azalea was suffering a calf muscle strain, took advantage of a mix-up between Emlyn Hughes and Peter Shilton to score his first easily after 58 minutes. Then, with two minutes remaining, he was fouled by Hughes for the penalty which he converted to pull Argentina level.
He scored against Rumania in a warm-up game too on the way to West Germany. But here it wasn't so easy. He played in all Argentina's six games, starting the match in the 3-2 defeat by Poland, the 1- 1 draw with Italy and the 4-1 win against Haiti, but then coming on as substitute for Rene Houseman in the 4-0 defeat by Holland in the second round.
Kempes played for an hour in the 2-1defeat by Brazil, and right through in the 1-1 draw with East Germany. But he'd done enough to confine himself as a likely pillar of Argentina for years to come….if he stayed.
As it is, he hasn't. And so determined was he in the end to leave Rosario Central that he said, after moving to Spain: “I’d have retired if they hadn't let me go."
Kempes' determination was not so much based on the short-term financial rewards but on what such a move could mean to his career. As he said, when asked about how much the transfer meant in cash terms: "The basic rates for top players are about the same here in Spain as in Argentina. But here the bonuses are much higher. But, you know, I didn't come to Spain to make money, but to make my name as a footballer."
It looks as if Mario Kempes will be given the chance to make that name even more famous next summer before his own fellow countrymen . . .
And for the record, as we all know, Kempes certainly did make his mark. As the only ‘emigrant’ player selected by Cesar Menotti for his 1978 World Cup squad, Kempes scored two of Argentina’s goals in their 3-1 final win over the Netherlands. Despite drawing a blank in the opening group games, six goals in the latter stages of the tournament, including a brace in the controversial 6-0 defeat of Peru, would see Kempes go on to collect the golden boot and affirm his legendary status in Argentina.
This article originally appeared in the August 1977 edition of World Soccer Magazine, 51 years young and still the best football publication available. You can subscribe to World Soccer for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.