On the ball: Les Murray, 68, soccer presenter
Les Murray began working as a journalist in 1971. He has since become one of Australia’s most trusted soccer broadcasters and analysts, and has played an instrumental role in increasing enthusiasm for the “Beautiful Game” in this country. Last weekend he announced his retirement as SBS’s chief football host, to begin after the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Tracey Holmes The World Cup – is it really about the football?
Les Murray The World Cup is more than a bunch of football matches strung together; it’s about global diversity, it’s a party, it’s the world at play, it’s a party that celebrates global diversity – amongst countries, races, religions, languages, traditions, all sorts of things. And it’s really about the fans. Maybe that doesn’t come across on television but, when you’re there, it’s about the fans.
TH Are you one of those people who subscribes to the theory that you can tell a lot about a country by the way their team plays the game?
LM Oh, absolutely… There are different ways of playing football, obviously there are different philosophies, methodologies, technical cultures and they all reflect the cultures of the country from which they come. The Brazilians play the way they play because they are Brazilians … that’s the only way they can play – a kind of vibrant, rhythmic, romantic, artistic style. The Germans play a different way; the English and Italians play a different way again. Their football is a reflection of their cultures and that’s the way it should be.
TH FIFA has been dogged by corruption allegations for many years; Brazil has had its protests, budget blowouts, stadia not finished. But once the football starts all of those things disappear into the background, don’t they?
LM Normally they do. But in Brazil you could have street demonstrations, and rightly so, because there are a lot of poor people who are looking very curiously at how, suddenly, their country has the money to build these stadiums and all this infrastructure.
TH Do you think countries such as Russia, Qatar, Brazil should get to host the Olympics or the World Cup when they have such terrible human rights records or other problems that probably should take greater priority?
LM Well, I’d carve Brazil out of that lot. Brazil deserves the World Cup, it’s a parliamentary democracy, there are no major human rights issues in Brazil. There is poverty, but that’s different. Regarding Russia, democracy is suffocated – there is no real democracy – and I don’t think the World Cup should go to a country like that. Qatar is a kingdom with no human rights, no democratic rights for any citizen, let alone the foreign workers who are effectively slaves under the kafala system. FIFA should have a policy whereby one of the prerequisites for hosting a World Cup is a minimum human rights and conditions record in that country. On that score Qatar fails miserably.
TH Do you think, though, that by bringing these events to these sorts of countries the pressure from the rest of the world actually brings about change?
LM Yes, of course. Both the Olympic Games and the World Cup have that sort of impact – positive impact, and it’s great to see – but if you put those rules in the process in the first place then those countries will get their act together before they apply to host the World Cup, not afterwards. That’s why we have this shit fight now over Qatar, because Qatar has turned itself upside down as far as its employment laws are concerned. They should’ve thought of that in the first place. I’m calling for a player boycott – well, a total sporting boycott – against Qatar. Sporting boycotts had the biggest impact on doing away with apartheid in South Africa, and any South African – black or white – will tell you that. So it has a tremendous impact and I think if there was a threat of a sporting boycott of Qatar, everything would change in that country.
TH How do the Socceroos reflect and represent Australia?
LM The Socceroos have always been the one true national team that reflected the Australian cultural diversity and demographics. Other teams don’t do that – the cricket team doesn’t do that, the rugby team doesn’t do that. That’s why the Socceroos are looked upon with such great importance by all Australians – not just football fans – because people know that they truly represent all of us.
TH Australia heads to the World Cup with a very new-look team and coach.
LM I would say it’s a team picked for 2018, not so much for 2014, and [coach] Ange Postecoglou has a five-year contract – he can afford to do that. I agree with his approach.
TH What will the world be thinking about Australia when the Socceroos run out onto the stadium to play Chile in their first game?
LM I think there’s still a bit of prejudice out there in the football world. They think Australia, because it’s not a European or a South American country, is some kind of football backwater. I thought we got rid of that in 2006, but then we got hammered by Germany four years ago, which put us back in our box. We can put that to bed with a big performance. We’ve got some good players who play with good leagues. We can do something.
TH What do you think will be the measure of success?
LM Hard to say. Most people measure these things by how many games you win or lose, or points you accumulate and so on. Even if we lose all three games, which is quite possible, I will look for what the team is trying to do, whether it’s trying to have a go in the good old Aussie way or not and whether it plays with a philosophy of which, as an Australian, I can be proud.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "On the ball". Subscribe here.