Les Murray (left) and Craig Foster accept the Logie for Most Outstanding Sports Coverage after the 2006 World Cup
A great sports broadcaster falls somewhere between a great critic and a fellow fan. Sport is primarily useful, meaningful or beautiful because of its aesthetics, its visceral and emotional impact, and a great commentator makes those elements comprehensible to us in real time. Any sports fan will know the power of a gifted broadcaster to enhance, or create, your enjoyment of a particular game.
It occurred me, when he died, that without the understated, martini-dry wit and gently effusive passion Richie Benaud had for cricket, I doubt I would have loved it in the same way. I know others who feel the same way about Dennis Cometti rattling off his dazzling wordplay during AFL. When, in 2012, Manchester City won their first league title for 44 years with the final kick of the season’s final game, Martin Tyler’s larynx-shredding cry of the goal scorer’s name as the crowd noise is turned to fuzz by the sheer animal roar enveloping the ground mikes, is as iconic as the win itself, and gives even this bitter old Leeds fan a rash of goosebumps every time.
Soccer commentator Les Murray wasn’t in the same vein — his beautiful, husky voice was better suited to a post-match wrap, or broad dissections of a player’s merits or a season review rather than calling the events as they happened. He never seemed to lose his cool.
He wasn’t an unemotional viewer — after Australia crept past Croatia to reach the second round of the World Cup for the first time in their history, his post-match review has that unmistakable fan’s hoarseness, that drunkeness on the euphoria of what he’d just seen. He was more measured and removed than some of his SBS colleagues about the game; he clearly loved the Australian team, but his demeanor, say before and after Australia’s first World Cup win against Japan, was more that of a teacher who can’t hide that they quite like a favoured student. After the gut-wrenching losses in 1997 against Iran, and Italy in 2006, he acted equal parts kindly relative and stone-cold pro to the two former players (Johnny Warren and Craig Foster respectively) temporarily struck dumb and tearful by the unfeeling cruelty of sport.
As it happens, the first thing I think of when I think of Les Murray doesn’t centre on a game.
It’s his announcement that Johnny Warren, his co-host and fellow warrior for the round ball game of many years, had cancer. After a brief interview with a visibly shattered Warren, Murray stands up, walks to Warren, and says, through the breath of laughter that people sometimes take on when dealing with impossible situations, something about the fights the two had shared. Then they do one of those awkward bro handshakes that looks like the pair are about to arm wrestle, and they fall into a clumsy hug. It was a jolting shot of messy, raw reality that was not supposed to be allowed on TV. Murray, among everything, seemed like he really cared. You couldn’t publicly dedicate yourself to soccer in the Australia of the 1980s if you didn’t.
For the longest time in Australia it was called wogball. A game for swarthy foreigners that a real man would steer clear of. Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, as Warren’s memoir put it.
For all his fandom, Murray was a thoughtful and considered commentator on the game and its running, and never shied away from criticising the rampant corruption he saw in FIFA. He was exactly the voice you wanted as a fan. Perhaps his great legacy is coining (or at the very least popularising) the phrase “the world game” through his show of the same name. It was glorious. Six hours on a Sunday. Like Rage for soccer fans, you never knew what obscure delight you might stumble upon in the leagues of Europe, or South America or Africa. The phrase was an elegant way around saying the word soccer (which Murray hated, and it is not the official name of the sport in Australia), avoiding confusion with AFL and reminding people that no one else outside North America treated the game with the same contempt we seemed to.
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Australia is a country with prodigious sporting credentials. Its 10 years as the best cricket team in the world between 1995 and 2005 set the most obvious example, but in golf, tennis, rugby and a host of Olympic sports Australia, given its size, consistently punches above its weight. It’s impossible to express to someone who doesn’t follow the game closely (especially now that Australia regularly makes it to the Word Cup) just what it felt like to be an Australian football fan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The qualification process was such that Australia would waltz through the Oceania group, putting 30 past the likes of American Samoa, only to meet a battle-hardened South American team for which Australia was not prepared. As the game got bigger in Australia and increasingly talented Australian players (the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Mark Schwarzer all making themselves at home in some of the biggest teams in Europe) kept falling at the final hurdle before the World Cup, the team came to feel cursed. Cursed by mismanagement, cursed by indifference, or maybe the the players’ tendency to choke. And then finally, in late 2005, it began to segue into quiet optimism.
The low-scoring nature of soccer may be frustrating to many, but you will not find another sport where any single unit of scoring can mean so much. When John Aloisi slotted a penalty past Uruguay’s Fabian Carini in the final qualifier for the 2006 tournament and 80,000 people erupted into something guttural and animal and ecstatic, it wasn’t just the release of 120 minutes of tension. It was 32 years, stretching back to the Socceroos’ last and, at the time, only appearance on that stage, where they failed to score a single goal. In no other sport can so much history and longing and hurt be localised in a single second. Murray, pro that he was, didn’t even flicker as he looked up after the game and said of his recently departed friend: “Johnny, we hear you.”
I, of course, know nothing of what state he was in in the lead up to the heart attack that felled him, but I hope he was able to watch Matildas’ young superstar Sam Kerr put three past Japan in the tournament of nations (pace, opportunism and surgical finishing, striker’s goals all) on Sunday night. It was the kind of game — high scoring, hard fought, in equal parts teamwork and individual brilliance — that is so pleasing to a fan. And there was no fan like Murray. He would have been just as delighted that it led the Sky News sports bulletins on Monday until, for obvious reasons, it was bumped into second place at about 1pm.
Murray managed to be many political things — a refugee, he had to change his name as a young man because no one would bother to learn to pronounce Laszlo Urge, a high-profile public broadcaster, a champion for soccer during the ’90s when it was demonised as a thuggish cesspool of sectarian violence — without ever being particularly bitter or polarising. In 2011, as people smugglers became national hate figures, the face drawn on the dartboard of our refugee policies, he trekked back to Hungary to find the one who took his family from a country about to be crushed by the Soviet Union in 1957, so he could thank him.
In a couple of weeks where Australia’s tendency to bafflingly casual racism reared its head more than once, it’s nice to reflect on Murray — this proud, dignified refugee, in comfortable possession of his heritage and as Australian as can be — who, though he would never claim it, represented something quietly great about Australia.