Since I saw Mario Kempes score twice in an Argentina-England friendly at Wembley in 1974, and four years later twice again against Holland in the 1978 World Cup final, I have considered him my number one football hero. The fact that Diego Maradona later appeared on the scene, never managed to alter my feelings. El Diego is Argentina's best ever footballer, but the fact is I support River Plate and he is a self-confessed River-hater and Boca Juniors fanatic. Enough said.
Maradona's alleged fanatism for Boca was not made public until 1981, the year Boca signed him from Argentinos Juniors. By that time Kempes was still very much hailed as the idol of many Argentine's for his superb displays in 78. Although not in top form for Valencia at the time, the River directors decided it was indispensable to purchase him, in order to mitigate the commotion generated by Diego's transfer to their arch rivals.
It was a dream-come-true for me when, after complicated and obscure negotiations, Kempes signed for River and scored twice in his debut against Colon in a 4-0 win during the early stages of the Metropolitan Championship. However, in the first Maradona-Kempes clash a few weeks later, Boca thrashed River 3-0 at la Bombonera with a memorable goal from Maradona after a dribble where he left Passarella, Tarantini and Fillol all stranded on the floor. Maradona's stunning form allowed Boca to obtain a significant advantage in the league by the half-way stage. By that time Kempes had already been sidelined due to a severe knee injury that ruled him out for three months. He was back however for the return game against Boca at River's Monumental stadium where he scored the equalizer in a 1-1 draw. Naturally, Maradona had put Boca in front.
In spite of suffering a shaky patch towards the end of the tournament, Boca eventually clinched the Metropolitan league title only one point ahead of runners-up Ferro Carril Oeste, the revelation team that year. River finished a meager fourth, but Mario managed to score nine goals in fifteen matches.
When the second tournament of the year began, the Nacional, River replaced legendary coach Angel Labruna by the equally legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, who had already coached Kempes at Valencia. An almost immediate improvement was evidenced in River's form when they visited la Bombonera, and convincingly defeated Boca 3-2 with Mario in great form scoring one of River's goals from a free kick. Diego scored Boca's second. The return game at the Monumental was an equally exciting 2-2 with Boca equalizing in the last minute, via a Maradona penalty, a consequence of a Kempes foul in his own penalty area.
Boca, however, were to be unexpectedly eliminated in the quarter finals of the Nacional by a Velez team containing veteran "French campaigners" Osvaldo Piazza and Carlos Bianchi. River reached the final against Ferro and won the first leg at home 1-0. For the second leg match, Kempes was back after a six match suspension. He scored the only goal of that game with a fantastic header that made River champions. It was to prove his last game for the club.
Truly delightful ending to a year destined for a Boca-Maradona double, ruined however by River and the great Mario Kempes.