THIS time around, Les Murray would not have been among the press corps at the World Cup, which finally roared into life in Russia yesterday.
By Enock Muchinjo
After 34 years in the commentary box at Australian network SBS, Murray retired from fulltime commentary and punditry four years ago following the World Cup in Brazil, a country in which he had a lifelong dream of covering the greatest sporting showcase on earth. But as sure as the sun will rise, Murray would have keenly followed the progress of his beloved Socceroos from the comfort of his home in Australia, where he sadly died last July at the age of 71.
Now, Murray, for those who had never heard of him, was a larger-than-life figure in his homeland and his influence will forever remain entrenched in the memories of football fans in Australia.
In Australia, a nation that regularly produce world champions in cricket and rugby, where the country’s own unique version of football – Aussie Rules – is the most popular national sport, where even horse-racing and a globally less popular format of rugby called “rugby league” attract bigger crowds nationwide, where more adult males play golf than any other sport – Murray is credited for almost single-handedly popularise football among Australians.
For a journalist, his legacy is unique, and fewer media professionals in the world will have the privilege of being invited to sit on the powerful Fifa Ethics Committee, as Murray was. Not that many, too, will be honoured by their national football associations in their lifetime with a place on the game’s Hall of Fame, and then also being honoured by their country in death with a state funeral. But when I arrived in Germany in May 2005, as a curb sports reporter on this newspaper, I had not known who Les Murray was. I was among 12 journalists from different countries, on a trip organised by the German government, to tell the story of the country’s readiness for the World Cup, which was to take place there the following year in 2006. Age gap and cultural difference notwithstanding, myself being the youngest in the group, the two of us immediately struck up a special bond, and one of my memories of the man they called “the voice of Australian football” was a somewhat comical story he told me of Zimbabwe’s first-ever attempt to qualify for the World Cup – a story he had himself heard from a former Australia international player.
It so happened that, for some strange reason, the rogue nation of Rhodesia was admitted into the qualification competition for the 1970 World Cup, which was to be hosted by Mexico. A multi-racial Rhodesia team, which included the great George Shaya, was drawn against Australia over two legs in 1969, with the winner making a giant step in the World Cup bid.
But due to sanctions, the Rhodesians could not get Australian visas, so the matches were played in the neutral venue of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique. After the first leg was drawn, it was time for the crunch tie and before the clash a daring Mozambican n’anga had somehow managed to breach security to approach the Australian team at their hotel, with an offer to help them win the game, for a fee of course.
Guessing they could do with a bit of fun and comic relief on what had been a taxing trip to Africa, the Aussies accepted the offer and there they lined up in front of their newly-found Mozambican friend, who duly proceeded to apply his magic potion on the entire Australian delegation.
Australia won the final leg 3-1 to progress to the next stage, upon which the sangoma came to the hotel to claim his payment for a job well done. But the Aussies, clearly in jovial mood after rounds of celebratory beer, brushed aside their Mozambican “saviour” and told him to get lost. So, the enraged traditional healer stormed out of the hotel without his money. But not before he had issued a few threats, warning the Australians of terrible consequences once they board the flight back home, which of course only drew a roar of drunken laughter from the Aussies.
On the flight from Maputo, it is said the Australian team simultaneously caught a stomach bug, which had nearly the entire squad dashing to the lavatory.
“They were almost all sh*****g themselves! They had to literally wait for their turn outside the aircraft toilets,” said Murray, bursting into a hearty laugh that typified the warm and humorous nature we got to enjoy during the three weeks we spent shuttling between Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Mönchengladbach and Dortmund.
It could well be food poisoning, but the story the Australian team preferred to humour themselves with long after was that of a Mozambican traditional healer who had punished them with a bout of diarrhea over a service fee.
History records that Australia did not qualify for that particular World Cup, losing the play-offs to Israel, who went to Mexico as representatives of the Oceania region.
Australia qualified for their first World Cup in 1974, and since 2006 the Socceroos have been to every other World Cup. Murray, who became a journalist in 1971, covered all editions until he called time on his illustrious career in Brazil four years ago.
As for Zimbabwe, since that first attempt 49 years ago, every single shot at World Cup qualification has been unsuccessful.
The Warriors were expelled by Fifa from the 2018 World Cup qualification competition without kicking a ball for failing to pay a former coach, the Brazilian Valinhos.
Nearly half a century on, we still wait for the opportunity to be at the biggest party in world sport. The journey has been eventful: coming a single match away from qualification at some stage, expulsion for the most embarrassing of reasons, and even a n’anga who “engineered” the opposition’s win, but did not get his payment.