The child refugee who went on to change Australia forever

Les Murray. Image via SBS

The death of Les Murray, the legendary sports commentator and driver of SBS’s pioneering role in making soccer a national sport in Australia, scared and saddened me.

Murray died yesterday at the age of 71, and I am nearly as old as he was. But there is so much more than our age that Les and I share.

For a starter, we are both Hungarian refugees.

When SBS’s Michael Tomaralis asked Greg Foster, the sports commentator and good friend of the soccer icon, what it was that Les wanted to be remembered for, Greg answered: “That he was a refugee”. 

I nearly cried on hearing this. 

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“Wanting this, in today’s Australia, when the word ‘refugee’ has been so much demonised,” I thought. 

It was more important to Les to be remembered as a refugee, than as the most important person in the history of soccer in Australia, who turned this game from a fringe sport played by refugees into a mainstream sport that’s beginning to rival Australia’s love affair with those funny egg shaped-ball-based-sports. 

Well, I am showing my bias. 

Because as a Hungarian refugee, who arrived to Australia at nearly 18, eight years after Les got here as an 11-year-old kid from the outskirts of Budapest, I could never understand why football was so much more admired in Australia than soccer.

This was because Les and I were in a unique position to see what outstanding soccer could do to a nation’s morale. Les and I were both soccer fanatics. You will understand why in a moment.

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We shared our soccer fanaticism with the rest of the Hungarian nation. But why were we Hungarians so besotted with soccer? 

Because soccer was our national religion until 1956. Yes, the very year, when Les defected from Hungary with his parents to come to Australia, after the shameful crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. 

Les caught a truck that took his family to the Hungarian-Austrian border to cross over illegally into the free Austria. As a 10-year-old at the time, I so very much wanted to catch such a truck.

One had waited for us too downstairs, to take any potential defectors to the Austrian border. In the distance we could hear the approaching, invading Russian troops’ gunshots as they were rapidly closing in on Budapest.

I pleaded with my father. 

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“Let’s go! Aunty Cuni is waiting for us with open arms in Australia. This is our only chance to get out,” my mother and I cried. 

By 1956 Mum had not seen her sister Cuni for 12 years – she had defected from Hungary in 1944 to escape with her daughter the lethal threat of ‘the final solution’ that Eichmann started to prosecute in Hungary against the Jews with great enthusiasm and precision.

And now the Soviets were coming back to revenge a nation that rebelled against their tyranny.

“Who knows, what was going to happen?” Mum and I asked Dad. My sister Erzsi, then 12, kept silent. She was a great patriot; I knew she would rather stay. Unfortunately, this was also Dad’s position.

“Look, I am already 54 years old. At 60 I’ll retire,” he answered sadly.

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“I’m not in a position to start a new life in the West at this age. Here, I am established in my hospital job and private practice as a doctor. The chance is, they would not even recognise my medical qualifications in Australia, let alone starting now to learn a new language at my age.”

Well, that was it. The truck left without us. 

But this was not the case with the Ürge family. László Ürge was Les Murray’s, original, Hungarian name, before it was anglicised.

And when Les left Hungary in that game-changing year of 1956, there is one thing he surely did not leave behind in Hungary.

It was his childhood memory of what soccer did to our nation there.

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It gave us a sense of pride and unique identity that was unmatched in significance by anything else in our lives in the 1950s.

Why?

Because Les and I were privileged to witness the monumental success of the national soccer team, led by the legendary Puskás, who to this very day still holds the world record of the number of goals scored by any player in international soccer games. You can read more about the ‘golden team’ here.

It was this peerless Hungarian team that won gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the team that beat England at home for the first time in its history with a staggering score of 6:3 in London, and then with an even more staggering 7:1 at the rematch in Budapest. 

But most importantly, it was also the team that routinely beat our giant oppressor, the Soviets, on the level playing field of soccer. 

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So, the national pride that soccer could give to a small, captive nation like Hungary was clearly on the mind and in the heart of the young Les Murray. 

He went on to become a newspaper journalist in Australia, then moved over to the newly created SBS, first as a Hungarian translator on soccer games with SBS radio and then as a sports commentator on SBS TV. 

The comet of the Hungarian team disintegrated with the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, but not Les Murray’s dream that perhaps his adopted country could eventually build its own golden team. 

So, he directed all his professional efforts to this noble goal! 

When at last Australia qualified for its first World Cup qualifying final in 1974, Les was beside himself with joy. And from that moment, there was a quantum shift in mainstream Australia’s attitude to soccer as a national sport!     

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The SBS was established to give voice to Australian multiculturalism, which has become increasingly strong with the arrival of ever more newcomers to Australia, including refugees. 

When I arrived to Australia, eight years later than Les, multiculturalism was still in its infancy.

My Aussie wife later told me of her childhood, when she grew up on a diet of mashed potatoes, fried lamb chops, lumps of charcoaled steak and vegetables such as frozen peas boiled until they turned yellow. 

I remember that the main takeaway foods in 1964 were Chicko rolls, meat pies, fish and chips, tasteless hot dogs and … that was it. For exotica, you occasionally visited the only common non-Aussie restaurant for a Chinese meal. 

When in 1970, I took my future wife for a meal in a new Hungarian restaurant, the Gelato Bar in Sydney’s Bondi, that was the first time she tasted non-Aussie food, apart from Chinese. 

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But it did not take long for cosmopolitanism to make inroads into and gradually transform Australia to such an extent that today’s mainstream Australia is culturally, incomparably richer than it was in the early 1960s. 

Les Murray played a pioneering role in this. 

He made the word ‘refugee’ look sexy in those days.

For it was the ‘reffos’ who primarily brought soccer to Australia, and with Les Murray’s and other refugees’ tireless effort, made it into the popular sport it is today.

So, how come, that he had the resilience for pushing an absolutely marginal refugee sport in the face of years of indifference towards it in mainstream Australia, until at last, soccer captured the imagination of Australia as a nation?

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I am convinced that for Les Murray, it was because he personally experienced what a good national soccer team can do to the morale of a small nation. 

Australia in the 1960s was still in the shadow of its ‘mother country’ Britain. But Britain was not the mother country of refugees.

Australia, and the refugees within it, needed to forge an authentic, new common identity. That came together in multiculturalism, with cuisine, music and the ‘new’ sport of soccer leading the way.

I met Les Murray some 20 years ago when I was interviewed about multiculturalism in the SBS studios in Sydney. My Hungarian interviewer introduced me to Les and we struck up a conversation in Hungarian.

I was pleasantly surprised that even though he spoke English without a trace of a Hungarian accent, he also spoke perfect Hungarian without a trace of an Aussie accent. Because he was only 11 when he came to Australia, he could learn English without an accent, whereas I, who was nearly 18 when I landed here, will always carry a Hungarian accent.

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His lack of a foreign accent also explains why it was so much easier for him to be seen by Aussies as ‘one of us’ and evangelise about soccer from an insider’s position.

I was not so lucky when I happened to be the very first (and last, to this day) trainee reporter on national television with a non-Anglo-Celtic accent, when I worked on the ABC’s This Day Tonight.

That is why I felt so moved when Les Murray’s Aussie mate, Greg Foster, said that the famous commentator wanted to be remembered most of all as a ‘refugee’, when he could so easily have dropped that burden.

So, here is to you, Les Murray, aka László Ürge, my dear fellow refugee!

Are you a soccer fan? Did you like to watch Les Murray on television?