It says a lot about the huge influence Les Murray had, not just on football in Australia but on the country itself, that the much loved broadcaster, who died at the end of July aged 71, was accorded the rare honour of a state funeral.
Regarded as the face and voice of soccer Down Under, Murray was an evangelist for the game at a time when it was largely overlooked in Australia and, through his work with the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), which would eventually span nearly 40 years, could legitimately claim to have made a significant contribution to the arrival of the ‘Socceroos’ on the international stage as well as the growth in popularity of the game at home.
But as a Hungarian-born refugee who had landed in Australia at the age of 11 after the crushing of the 1956 revolution in his homeland, his was also a national voice speaking eloquently in favour of multi-culturalism and the rights of asylum-seekers.
At no point did Murray never seek to disguise the fact that he saw in football — he sport he liked to call ‘the world game’, a phrase he is said to have coined — the potential to be a unifying force.
Craig Foster, the former Australian player turned broadcaster, who was capped 29 times for his country, shared commentary and analysis duties with Murray at the last four World Cups.
“I’ll remember him as someone who changed the country,” Foster said. “He said to Australia, ‘this is the global game, you need to understand it, this is how we relate to the world and actually, without it, we are diminished’.
“He embodied a love of football, that’s why they call him ‘Mr Football’, because the way he carried himself showed what he thought about the game.
“That’s why he was the great man Les Murray.”
Among many others who hailed the extent of Murray’s influence beyond the white lines, SBS Director of Sport Ken Shipp said: “Football, SBS, Les, this is no exaggeration, changed the nation. He saw the huge value sport, particularly football, could have as a vehicle for breaking down barriers and uniting people.”
Born Laszlo Urge in a village close to Budapest in 1945, Les James Murray’s passion for football kicked in with exposure to the 1960 European Cup Final in Glasgow, a famous 7-3 win for Real Madrid over Eintracht Frankfurt which is still widely regarded as one of the greatest exhibitions of the game ever seen.
“I started on this mad mission to convert Australians to football in the schoolyard,” he said last year. “That’s where it started, not when I became a broadcaster - that was just a continuation of it.”
Murray began work as a journalist in 1971 and joined SBS nine years later, initially providing Hungarian language sub-titles.
But it was as a commentator on the Australian national team’s friendlies and qualifiers and at World Cups from 1986 in Argentina to 2014 in Brazil — and also as the host of popular programmes including On The Ball and the show with which he was synonymous, The World Game — that Murray earned iconic status.
In a statement following his death after a long illness, SBS said: “Many Australians know Les as ‘Mr Football’, who began working with SBS when it launched as a television broadcaster in 1980.
His role went far beyond being a football commentator. The growth, popularity and success of football in Australia today is absolutely a reflection of his passion and advocacy for the game that he loved.”
Despite professional commitments, Les Murray also found time to indulge in another great passion, rock music, as the lead singer in a group called The Rubber Band, and he even made an appearance in a video with indie outfit TISM for their song, in his honour, entitled ‘What Nationality Is Les Murray?’.
He completed the crossover ahead of his last World Cup in Brazil by rapping the names of famous players on Melbourne band Vaudville Smash’s
football anthem ‘Zinedine
Murray, a member of the Order of Australia, is survived by his partner Maria and daughters Natalie and Tania.
And it was Tania whose eulogy brought together the private and public man for the nearly one thousand mourners who attended his state funeral.
Describing her father as “a fighter but also a great accepter” and also as a “party animal”, she said.
“He loved late nights, he loved his rock and roll and he loved his ‘scotchawiches’. So when the chips are down, or you’re in the thick of a great celebration as we are here today, to use one of dad’s favourite expressions, ‘we must always kick on’.”
But she also paid a moving tribute to her dad as a force for good in the wider world.
“One of the greatest things he taught me was that the world is one community, one family,” she said. “He loved nothing more than seeing people from all over the world unite, in peace and joy.”
And, for Les Murray, football was always at the heart of that vision.
Summing up the feelings of his many friends, colleagues and fans at the loss of a national treasure, Jason Dasey, senior editor at ESPNFC, observed: “No matter whom he dealt with, Les always had that sense of mission when it came to football. He stuck with the game through its many ups and downs, including the agony of seven failed World Cup campaigns before the miracle of the Uruguay penalty shoot-out victory in 2005.
“Without Les, football may have still had the success that it did in Australia, but it wouldn’t have been as colourful or enjoyable. We will miss him.”
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