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José Luis Brown, footballer who opened the scoring for Argentina on the way to victory in the 1986 World Cup final – obituary

Jose Luis Brown
Jose Luis Brown Credit: Colorsport/Rex

José Luis Brown, who has died aged 62, scored Argentina’s opening goal in the 1986 World Cup final, helping the team to victory in a tournament in which, just a few weeks earlier, he had not expected to play.

A tall, commanding central defender with an eye for goal, Brown had a reputation in Argentine football for not quitting. Yet during the two seasons prior to the World Cup he had been severely hampered by an injury to his right knee. He had played only a handful of games, and shortly before the competition, at the age of 29, he was let go by his club, Deportivo Español of Buenos Aires.

Nevertheless, he was included in the squad, as cover for the sweeper Daniel Passarella, by the Argentine manager, Carlos Bilardo; Brown had been Bilardo’s captain at Estudiantes when they had won the domestic championship. In the new climate of open criticism that prevailed after the fall of Argentina’s junta, the newspapers were forthright in their condemnation of his selection.

Indeed, they held out little hope for the team’s prospects, citing internal division and comparing unfavourably Bilardo’s tactical style with the flamboyant approach of his predecessor, Cesar Menotti, who had led Argentina to World Cup victory in 1978. Although by 1986 Diego Maradona had fully matured, four years earlier opponents had found it easy to stifle his creativity and provoke his volatility. Some Argentine sports journalists were said to have booked their return flights from Mexico, the tournament host country, for after the first round.

Maradona later recalled the contribution that Brown made to team spirit in training for the competition, despite not expecting to play. On flights to preparatory warm-up games, Brown, he remembered, would exercise his knee in the aisle of the aircraft.

Then on the eve of the World Cup, Passarella was ruled out with enterocolitis. Aided by the ministrations of the team doctor, Riccardo Eccheverria, Brown would play every minute of the next seven matches in a span of under a month.

The Argentina team line up before the 1986 World Cup final: Brown is third from the right, back row Credit: Bongarts/Getty Images

After getting through the group stage undefeated and then overcoming Uruguay, Argentina played England in the quarter-finals. Brown later called it “the hardest match of the tournament”. Thanks to Maradona, and the “Hand of God”, Argentina prevailed for a win hailed by their fans as revenge for defeat in the Falklands War. More mesmerising play by Maradona wrought triumph over Belgium and earned a place in the final against West Germany.

Brown admitted later that he had not slept the night before the match, spending it restlessly turning in his bed, looking at the ceiling and at the photographs of his children. The game was staged at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, before more than 100,000 spectators, mostly locals rooting for the Germans to humble their fellow Latins.

But it was Argentina, and Brown, who seized the initiative first. When Maradona was fouled near the edge of the penalty area, Jorge Burruchaga swung over a fast, curving free-kick. Its flight was completely misjudged by the German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher, and it sailed over him as he came to take it.

Brown fends off Steve Hodge at the Azteca stadium in 1986 Credit:  Colorsport/Rex

“I was really good at heading and I headed it really hard,” observed Brown, who shoved aside Maradona to thump the ball into the net with a jump at the back post. He celebrated in memorable fashion, falling to his knees in ecstasy mixed with disbelief. It was the only goal he would score in his 36 international matches.

Early in the second half, Brown dislocated his shoulder following a collision with Norbert Eder. Unwilling to risk disrupting the defensive back line, he refused to be substituted, playing on through increasing pain. He bit a hole in his shirt into which he hooked two fingers in an effort to minimise the joint’s movement, though to little avail.

Argentina, however, were two goals up and appeared to be in no trouble, until the Germans scored twice in a few minutes to make for a tense climax. It was Maradona who had the last say, setting Burruchaga free to run on and score the winning goal six minutes from time. Brown and his team-mates returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

Brown takes on Terry Butcher during the World Cup quarter-final Credit: Mike King/Allsport

José Luis Brown was born on November 10 1956 at Ranchos in Buenos Aires province. He was a direct descendant of a Scotsman, James Brown, who had emigrated from Greenock in 1825 and become a farmer.

Several of James’s grandchildren had been stars of Argentina’s first national teams and of the Alumni, the club founded by another Scot, Alexander William Hutton, who had gone to Argentina to recover from tuberculosis. Considered the father of Argentine football, it was he who had introduced the quick passing style then favoured in Scotland over the kick-and-rush charges approved of in England.

From the age of three, José in effect grew up in a form of boarding school, as his parents were at work all day. By the time he was 14 he had been scouted by the Estudiantes club, based in La Plata, near the capital and some 50 miles from Ranchos.

Finding it increasingly difficult to raise the money to travel there and back, he decided in his early teens to move to La Plata on his own. His courage paid off when Bilardo gave him his debut for the club at 18.

Brown issues instructions during an Argentina Under-17 training session in 2009 Credit: Jamie McDonald /Fifa

Nicknamed Tata, or “Papa”, he played for Estudiantes more than 300 times, mainly as a sweeper, captaining the side to title wins in 1982 and 1983. His team-mates included Alex Sabella, formerly of Sheffield United and Leeds. Brown then had a spell in Colombia before joining Boca Juniors in 1985, only for his injury problems to begin.

After his World Cup triumph he signed for the French club Brest, then played in Spain with Murcia, and for Racing Club back in Argentina, before hanging up his boots in 1989. He had played 460 matches and scored 46 goals.

He subsequently had a long career in management, most notably as assistant coach to the Argentina Under-23 side – which, featuring Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, won gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Latterly, however, he had been afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease.

He is survived by his second wife Viviana, by a son of their marriage, and by a son and daughter from his first marriage.

José Luis Brown, born November 10 1956, died August 12 2019