Les Murray is one of the most respected men in football. After growing up in Hungary as a boy, Les had to flee the country in search of a better life in 1957. His family moved across the World to Australia, and from there Les never really looked back. Now 54 years later, Les is the ‘Face of Football’ in Australia and has been credited with the rise of soccer in the country. As well as still being the front man at SBS, Les has also been a member of FIFA’s Ethics Commission since 2006 and has written several books including his most recent publication, “The World Game: The Story of How Football Went Global”. It was truly an honour to speak to the great man.
You moved from Hungary to Australia at the age of just 11 in 1957, do you have any lasting early memories of the country? Hungary was obviously under Communist Rule at this stage so I guess it was a pretty scary place to live?
Hungary was always a beautiful country but at that time it was quite drab and depressed. People were poor, oppressed, manipulated by an appalling regime and a popular revolt had just been crushed by the Soviet tanks. There was no hope.
Can you remember any specific events from when you fled Hungary? Again it must have been a terrifying time.
It was immediately post-revolution. My father was quite active during the revolution, anti-the communist regime, so I am sure he would have been arrested for treason had we stayed. We had to flee and we did, crossing into Austria in early December 1956. It was a very dangerous journey.
You decided to change your name from László Ürge to Les Murray when you moved to Australia, just as my Grandad did when he moved to England in 1957. What was the reason behind this? To prevent discrimination?
I only changed it once I got into television. The network that employed me, Channel Ten, encouraged me to change it. But I was already sick of the way my surname was always mispronounced anyway.
How did you get into football? Was it when you moved to Australia or did it come from your short time in Hungary, and did you ever play yourself?
I caught the football bug when I was around six, after my father took me to a village game. I just fell in love with it, though not with any team. I still don’t have any team that I support in a partisan way. I only favour teams that play what I call good football. If they abandon that way of playing, I abandon them immediately.
How often do you go back to Hungary and when was the last time that you went to see a Magyar Foci game? Do you still get see any Hungarian matches while in Australia?
I go back every few years and love it when I do. The last time was 2009 and I plan on holidaying there next year. It always seems to happen that whenever I go back the football is either in its summer or winter break. The last time I saw a game there was in 1975, a pre-season cup match between Ujpest and Ferencvaros. Laszlo Fazekas and, if I’m right, a young Andras Torocsik were both playing.
The first World Cup you covered for SBS was the 1986 finals (the last time Hungary qualified). Was it special covering your home country, and what are your memories of that Hungarian side and the tournament itself?
That was heartbreaking. Hungary had a good team, with the likes of Detari, Kiprich and Eszterhazy. They beat Brazil 3-0 in Budapest in a pre-season friendly and were quite ambitious. Then came that 6-0 hammering by the USSR in their opening game. I remember popping out of the studio for a cigarette after kick-off. By the time I returned it was 2-0. That result triggered a long slump in Hungarian football from which it is only now beginning to recover.
What do you think Hungary has to do to be able to compete on the international stage like that again? You said in a blog a few years ago that you thought that Gábor Várszegi might be the man to save Hungarian football? After his recent failures as Chairman of MTK and the clubs relegation, has your opinion now changed? Do you think there is someone out there who can save it?
When I said that I was likening Varszegi to Frank Lowy, a powerful and visionary entrepreneur who breathed life into Australian football. Perhaps I was wrong. But in Australia what preceded Lowy was a full-blown government inquiry into football governance and management whose conclusion led to the Lowy appointment. I argued then, and still argue, that something similar needs to happen in Hungary with a genuine, visionary, incorruptible person put in charge. I don’t know who that may be. But I know that the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is a genuine football fan. Surely he has the means at his disposal to fix the game. I know Hungary, a small country, can never be as internationally great as it once was. But there is no excuse for Slovenia or Slovakia qualifying for the World Cup while Hungary doesn’t.
Who is your favourite Hungarian Footballer of all time?
Ferenc Puskas, of course, one of the greatest of all time. In fact I rank him along with Maradona, Pele, Cruyff and Di Stefano in the five greatest in the history of the game.
If Australia were to play against Hungary in the World Cup final in 2014, would your loyalties rest solely with Hungary or has living in Australia the majority of your life changed your allegiances?
That’s a tough question but I have to answer it honestly. In most sports my heart lies with Hungary. When the Olympics are on I search the results pages to first see how the Hungarian athletes have fared. But in football I would support Australia. I am too much adhered to seeing football succeed in Australia for wanting to see its national team lose to anyone.
Football has changed so much during your 30 year career. Do you think it has changed for the better or for the worse?
Through the game’s natural evolution, we are seeing far better players, who are quicker, stronger and technically more rounded than they once were. The current Barcelona is as good a team as any I have seen in my life. But broadly the romance and the élan have been minimized, thanks to coaches becoming far too relevant. Believe it or not, I remember when every team, every single team, went out to just score more goals than the opposition. That was virtually the only tactic and strategy. Now the coach is king and the coach, by nature, is mostly interested in avoiding defeat for too many defeats will lead to his sacking. Someone like Mourinho would not have lasted in the 1950s. His ‘fear’ football would not have been tolerated by his club nor its fans.
In 1995 TISM wrote a song about you named “What nationality is Les Murray.” How did you react when you first heard about the song, and then when you listened to it?
I laughed. I thought it was a great song, quite apart from the title and lyrics. I subsequently met the guys in the band and even accepted a musical award on their behalf.
How did the opportunity arise to become a member of the FIFA Ethics committee and after recent accusations against FIFA, are the committee doing everything they possibly can to “clean up the game”?
I was invited to serve on the committee by the FIFA secretary general in 2006. I believe the committee has done a superb job within the confines of its mandate. It is a fully independent body with no interference from anyone. But of course it can only deal with cases that are brought to it. Once cases are brought, the committee acts judiciously, decisively and indeed courageously. Since November last year it has brought down four of the most powerful men in FIFA.
How special was it when you were made Member of the Order of Australia in 2006? Were you surprised when you got the call?
Yes I was surprised. But this is Australia, where someone can arrive as a boy refugee and then be recognised and honoured some time later for the contribution he has made to his adopted country. I was very proud.
You have been credited as being part of the reason that football has grown so much in Australia over the past few years. Why do you think Australian football has developed so much and do you ever think will ever become as popular as cricket?
It is already very popular. For example the football World Cup gets bigger television audiences than the cricket World Cup or even the Ashes Tests. But of course in cricket Australia is a leading country while in football it is not. If the reverse was the case, who knows what the status of football would be. I mean imagine where cricket’s popularity would be if Australia was ranked 23rd in the world, as the Socceroos are. Football is now valued and appreciated by the length and breadth of Australian society. It still has some ways to go but it’s in a good place.
You are now the face of SBS and soccer, the “Richard Keys of Australia” (without the sexism), so what lies ahead for Les Murray? Are there any more books in the pipeline?
My latest book, The World Game (Hardie Grant), was only recently released. I have no plans to do another, at least not until I retire and become a reclusive hermit. In my urge to propagate the appeal of the beautiful game in Australia, there is still some work to do. I will continue to do it until I grow tired or unable to continue.