Argentina in the Balkans: The Chaotic Kempes & Ardiles Episodes

When Dick Nanninga scored that late equaliser in the Final to deny, temporarily at least, victory for Argentina in their own 1978 World Cup, the deflation wasn’t confined to the fans in attendance at the Monumental Stadium. Also present at the game was a Yugoslav commentator by the name of Mladen Delić and he wasn’t happy at the prospect of extra-time and potentially a replay four days later either.

His reasons were exclusively selfish ones as he mused at inordinate length to the bemused listeners back home in Yugoslavia about how this outcome would force a change in his travel itinerary home to Zagreb. Fortunately for him and the Argentina fans, his flight changing trepidation proved unfounded as Argentina scored twice in extra-time to win this bad-tempered game on the night. What Delić nor anyone else could never have anticipated is that two of the most important players in Cesar Luis Menotti’s World Cup winning team that night – Mario Kempes and Osvaldo Ardiles – would follow a similar flight path to Europe several decades later undertaking short and chaotic managerial adventures in the Balkans.

One of the odder managerial appointments the European game has seen in modern times took place in late December 1996 when Kempes, the goal-scoring hero of that brilliant 78 national side, accepted an offer to begin his managerial career with the anonymous Albanian club KF Lushnja. For decades under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha Albania was one of the most isolated countries in the world and, even with a vague 1990s drift towards liberalism, life hadn’t changed all that much for the better for its citizens.

Unlikely to have been drawn there by the attractions of this non-descript agricultural town in the west-centre of the country, for Kempes this appointment was all about cold hard cash and the signing bonus delivered in two sacks to his home. Furthermore he agreed to a contract worth $700,000 over two seasons plus a monthly bonus and sizeable incentives if Lushnja, then a lowly tenth in the top-flight table, won the league championship or national cup.

“I am very pleased with the way I have been received in Albania and hope to do well with Lushnja. Technically they have a lot of potential”, said El Matador, the first foreign manager in Albanian football history, at his unveiling four days before Christmas 1996. And yet just 32 days later he would be gone.

It all began so well for Kempes too. His team was exotically reinforced with a Brazilian and two Nigerian players and won a domestic cup tie against FK Teuta Durrës, the first time ever they had defeated their arch rivals in the main Albanian cup competition. In the League his new charges romped to a crushing 5-0 win against a strong Dinamo Tirana side causing optimism to soar to such an unfeasible degree that, according to local media, Kempes contacted his compatriot Gabriel Batistuta about the prospect of him giving up his gilded Serie A life with Fiorentina for an unlikely move to join him across the Adriatic Sea.   

Such ambitions were fuelled by the apparently unlimited financial largesse of Lushnja’s president Pëllumb Xhaferri, but the timing for Mario Kempes could actually have not been more inopportune. At the end of January of 1997 the country lurched into a sudden economic and financial turmoil caused by the collapse of the popular pyramid selling schemes that cost many Albanians their life savings. Xhaferri was one of the architects of the schemes and was duly arrested. Without his main cheerleader and benefactor at his side, suddenly the financially well-remunerated Mario Kempes seemed exposed in this alien land.   

“We were in the hands of the Lord. I looked at how that country had many economic problems, but I thought they would pass very quickly. Eventually some of the local fans reported to me that the situation was getting worse day by day. They told me I had to leave, as if I was delayed in my choice I would not have been able to leave. I did my best to leave, one day after the emergency situation. I flew to Rome together with my brother. It was the very last plane that left Albania before the flights were stopped. We were very fortunate”, said Kempes in an interview with The Observer in 2002.

Back home safely in Argentina with the financial incentive to work in a troubled backwater like Lushnja now removed, oddly Kempes still harboured a desire to return. He still believed in his first managerial mission and, despite the dangerous political situation engulfing the country, tried to conscript the support of legendary former teammates Diego Maradona and Daniel Pasarella to share in his ambition of creating an Albanian footballing powerhouse.

Unsurprisingly both said no, but perhaps the answer might have been different had he asked another of his former international teammates Ossie Ardiles. Just two and a half years after Kempes departed the Balkans in ignominious fashion, Ardiles accepted an offer to coach the back-to-back Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb (then still named NK Croatia). This was a club which had its own colourful and controversial figure at the helm in the shape of the Croatian president himself, Franjo Tudjman, a man similarly not adverse to financing his club with other peoples money: in this instance millions poured in from the national state budget.

Canjuga & Ardiles

The man who appointed him in June of 1999 was Miroslav Tudjman, the son of Franjo and also head of Croatia`s Security and Intelligence Agency. It seemed a left-field choice for the Argentinian, but by this time his managerial star was on the wane after entertaining, if ultimately unsuccessful spells in charge of clubs like Tottenham and Newcastle United.

“Dinamo was the biggest club in the country. Though the war had just recently ended, football in Croatia was in a pretty good condition. Croatia finished third at 1998 World Cup and at least three of those players were members of Dinamo side, including Robert Prosinečki,” recollected Ossie, whose spell in Zagreb would be abruptly ended because of that very same Prosinečki.

As was the case with Kempes in Albania, Ardiles’s Balkan adventure started positively as NK Croatia eliminated the Hungarians of MTK Budapest in the last qualification round for the 1999/2000 Champions League. In the group stages themselves his side kicked off their campaign by keeping a very credible clean sheet in a deserved draw at Old Trafford against the reigning European champions Manchester United.

That auspicious start faded with defeats against Olympique Marselle and Sturm Graz, so when Manchester United came to Zagreb in October for the return fixture, the pressure was on Ardiles from Tudjman and the Zagreb fans to get their qualification bid back on track with a win. It is said that many Balkan folk walk around with their head in the clouds, but for NK Croatia fans there was a genuine feeling that with Prosinečki in their team then absolutely anything was possible.

Tudjman & Canjuga

“He was an extremely talented player but at the end I was forced to leave club because of him. I knew he didn’t have a strength to play the whole 90 minutes, so I wanted him to start on the bench and make a difference later in the game. He told me he won’t sit on the bench. I understood the reason for his frustration because he felt he would be humiliated with that. But then everyone started to push me, from media to club management and fans in order to change my mind“, explained Ardiles, unwiling to reverse his decision.

Prosinečki came on as a substitute to score NK Croatia’s only goal in 2-1 defeat in what would be Ossie`s last game in charge. Later that evening the club chairman and Tudjman’s faithful servant Zlatko Canjuga called a meeting to announce that Ardiles had been relieved of his duties. After only four months and 21 days in charge, the first foreign manager in the club’s history had to leave despite his perfectly satisfactory record in the national championship.

Ardiles would later discuss his brief Croatian interlude in a chapter of his autobiography titled ‘Political football’: “People concentrated more on other things. If you spend years in the war, you won’t acknowledge if someone does his regular job properly. Those were the years of Croatia`s reconstruction and the beginning of her democratization. President Tudjman died soon after my departure and opposition parties won the elections. Very soon the club name was Dinamo once again and the club got its new chairman“, concluded Ardiles who would be remembered in Balkans as the last Tudjman manager.


One thought on “Argentina in the Balkans: The Chaotic Kempes & Ardiles Episodes

  1. Actually, Ardiles was not the first foreign manager in the history of Dinamo Zagreb, Marton Bukovi was a manager in the ’60s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.