Les Murray signed off for the last time on Monday from the SBS sets in Rio on the morning of the 2014 World Cup Final.
The last 10 minutes of the show were a fitting tribute to a man that has brought world football into our lounge rooms since 1980.
My generation has grown up with Les and shows like On the Ball and The World Game. The feature matches shown on these programs were quite often obscure to an Aussie kid growing up in the ‘burbs of Sydney, whether it was a big Yugoslavian derby, a match from Ligue 1 or a more mainstream first Division English football game.
This opened up my world to players I would never had otherwise had heard of. When introducing a game, who could ever forget his annunciations of words to ensure they had a worldly edge to them, such as “Real Madrid is in the whhhite strip”. I often remember my mates and me impersonating him at the training ground when commentating our attempts on goal.
Murray mentioned he always wanted to be part of a broadcast of a World Cup in Brazil. That wish was fulfilled on the shores of Copacabana Beach, along with receiving a Botafogo shirt with the great Garrincha’s number seven on the back – his favourite player of all time.
Alongside his family, László Ürge landed in Australia from Hungary at the age of 11 as part of a refugee scheme, finally residing in Wollongong on the south coast of NSW.
In primary school, he often argued with his classmates, who were firmly entrenched in the traditional codes of rugby league and cricket, about the beauties of football and couldn’t understand why they did not share the same love for the game. After changing his name in 1977, he hosted eight World Cups for Aussie audiences, all the while sporting his famous glasses and ever-greying locks.
If you were lucky enough to see the emotional tribute to him on Monday night, it really hit home how much he has witnessed during turbulent football times in this country. From the old NSL days of ethnic segregation when he was commentating on weekend afternoons at places like St George Stadium, to the reforms under David Hill, from the changing of World Cup qualification paths, to the formation of the A-League, he always had the one constant on his mind, the continual spread of football into mainstream society to provide joy for the masses.
During the closing of the show, Craig Foster asked him a series of questions to reflect on his times as the face of football on TV. Murray replied that he was always on a mission – for Australia to be important in world football.
He went on to say even if you didn’t like football and only followed Aussie Rules or rugby league, you had to realise the importance of Australia being relevant on the global stage. Thus the more you qualify and grow at tournaments like the World Cup, your country carves out its own identity which the global community can relate to.
Tim Cahill’s wonder strike versus Holland can give us something to talk about the next time we’re having a beer with someone from a football-mad country.
Another point he raised was that football should only be played one way – the “beautiful way”. Only then, will you get non-football people to become interested in the sport. His sidekick for much of this mission was the great Johnny Warren, who took off the blinkers and learnt from the rest of the world.
Johnny had a love of Brazilian football – not the 2014 version – and his end goal was to see Australia play in the World Cup again and to embrace playing “the beautiful way”. Unlike me, Johnny wasn’t there that night to see Australia beat Uruguay in Sydney, but the ‘I told you so’ signs were to ensure his voice was heard.
One can only think that Johnny would have been proud of the 2014 Socceroos and the way they approached their group games under Ange Postecoglou. After years of attacking shackling by two of his predecessors, Ange brought a new found excitement to a team many Australians had given up on. If only Louis Van Gaal had done the same thing against Costa Rica and Argentina.
And so, Mr Football’s fight continues. Australia is becoming increasingly relevant in the football landscape with some big wins over footballing royalty in recent times. Scalps have included Germany, England, Brazil and Holland to name a few. There have also been some painful and harsh defeats along the way to wake us up and realise this will be a constant struggle.
However, all along Les was there fighting for Australian football and its constant motion forward.
He now passes the baton to Craig Foster to continue the passion and lust for the progression of football into a new era. Despite his often polarising views, one cannot question Foster’s commitment to the cause.
I just hope he doesn’t sit behind too many microphones during games! Like Johnny Warren and Les Murray before him, he acknowledges that we have much to learn from other countries on how to build for a future in order to one day of dreaming of lifting the coveted 18-carat gold trophy.
France’s hard work paid off in 1998 by winning on home soil, Spain had built from the ground up to lift the 2010 prize, Germany have done it this year. If the Socceroos ever reach this achievement, Les and Johnny will be smiling down from above.
Les Murray will still make sporadic appearances on SBS but until then, Australian football and television says goodbye and thanks to a man who came here as an immigrant to become very much part of our culture.