Remembering Les Murray, Australia's face of football for 40 years
It was 11 years ago on a sultry June afternoon, just after a late Tim Cahill double had conjured up Australia's first-ever World Cup victory from nowhere. In the bowels of Kaiserslautern's Fritz-Walter-Stadion, the visiting media contingent was in frenzied overdrive.
Scurrying towards the press conference room where Cahill and Guus Hiddink were about to talk about the Socceroos' 3-1 win against Japan, I bumped into Les Murray who'd just come off the air after hosting the Germany 2006 game for SBS in Australia.
Like me, Les was almost too stunned to speak, beyond the usual pleasantries, as we walked along the corridor with his co-host Craig Foster. But we exchanged smiles and a knowing look about what that moment might mean for football in our country.
Twenty years earlier, we'd been SBS colleagues at a time when soccer, as it was known then, was struggling in Australia. Years of poor administration had taken its toll, and the sport suffered in comparison with the established likes of Rugby League, Rugby Union and Australian Rules.
Les, who died on July 30 at the age of 71, was a jack of all trades at SBS after starting as a subtitler for Hungarian language programming. As well as his beloved football shows like On The Ball, and coverage of the National Soccer League matches, Les hosted Sport Report, a national programme that I produced. It gave exposure to neglected pursuits like fencing, inline speed skating and sphairee, a miniature form of tennis invented on Sydney's lower north shore.
My strongest memory of Les from that period was the many hours he'd spend at the SBS offices on the Sydney Harbour foreshore at Milsons Point with his great friend Johnny Warren. Johnny was a former Socceroos' captain and member of the 1974 World Cup side who was our network's main pundit. Like Les, he held the dream that the Socceroos would again qualify for a World Cup to help football take its rightful place as a respected and mainstream sport in Australia.
Raucous laughter would come from Les' smoke-filled office, as he and Johnny would engage in impassioned discussions about the great Brazil teams of the 1960s and 70s. And, of course, they would also pay tribute to the amazing Hungarians of the 1950s, led by Les' hero, Ferenc Puskas, who played eight years with Real Madrid.
Sadly, Johnny never got to see the Socceroos qualify for another World Cup, dying of respiratory complications related to lung cancer in Nov. 2004. But, like Les, he was awarded a full state funeral, and his optimistic slogan of "I told you so" became a mantra for the Socceroos as they aimed to prove their countless homegrown critics wrong.
But the first time I crossed paths with Les was in 1980 when we were both journalists for different publications at Fairfax Media in Sydney.
One afternoon, I looked across the newsroom at the old Fairfax offices at Broadway, and was struck by the slim and dashing man with salt and pepper hair who wore an open waist coat, and a pink shirt, with large collars. He looked more like a cabaret entertainer than a features' sub-editor on The Sydney Sun, where he worked alongside news editor John Benaud, the cigar-smoking brother of former Australian cricket captain and commentator, Richie.
Indeed, Les could more than hold a tune, and was the lead singer of a group called The Rubber Band, in the late 1960s and 70s. Les' iconic status as a football broadcaster would later see him featured in a 1990s song by Australia's TISM, "What Nationality is Les Murray?"
Les and I were never close friends, but we crossed paths professionally for more than three decades, and always enjoyed reconnecting.
In recent years, we caught up in Malaysia at the Borneo Cup, a junior football tournament organised by Sabah-based former Socceroo Scott Ollerenshaw, who brought Les over as guest of honour. It was there that Les shared with me his incredible story of being a refugee, sneaking across the Hungarian border on a wintry night, before ending up in an Australian migrant camp.
His family would move to Wollongong, south of Sydney, before Les' 12th birthday. It was a working city known more for its love of Rugby League than soccer, but Les would brazenly stand up for the beautiful game at Berkeley High School as his father earned a living at the local steelworks.
Les' real name was Laszlo Urge -- he changed it when he took his first steps as a part-time broadcaster at the Ten Network in the late 1970s -- and I would still call him Laszlo when we met, including the 2010 World Cup draw in Cape Town where Australia found themselves grouped with Germany, Ghana and Serbia.
The last time we caught up was at an A-League game a couple of years ago when Les invited me and my best friend from the United States to watch Sydney FC against Adelaide United from the comfort of the SBS corporate box.
He was waiting for me in the corridors of the Allianz Stadium, with two passes in his hand, and a smile. We watched the game in the company of his long-time co-host Foster, and others, with delicious Australian seafood and wines.
It was the first-ever Australian soccer game for my American friend, and Les took extra to care to make sure that he enjoyed the experience.
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, but it wouldn't have been as colourful or enjoyable. We will miss him.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.