The Late Les Murray: “Bring on Israel Again!”


Australian soccer broadcaster Les Murray has died of an undisclosed illness – news which, while sad, will have the vast majority of you scratching your head and wondering “Ok Dave, but where are you going with this?”

Right here: Over 10 years ago, Les wrote an article suggesting Australia should play Israel annually “to revive the most stirring, crowd-pleasing, ongoing international rivalry of which the Socceroos have ever been part.” (hat tip: Jono)

Les Murray

Bring on Israel again!

Argentina has been lined up to play Australia in Melbourne on June 6 and, in another major coup for the FFA, recent World Cup foe Uruguay will face the Socceroos in Sydney four days earlier.

That begins to make this year’s Socceroos match program impressive, added to this month’s game against Denmark and the Asian Cup finals in July, although there are still a number of international dates still left to be filled.

I have a suggestion: Israel. In fact I have another suggestion: let Australia play Israel annually, perhaps home and away in alternate years for some kind of trophy, this to revive the most stirring, crowd-pleasing, on-going international rivalry of which the Socceroos have ever been part.

Between 1979 and 1989 Australia played Israel no less than 16 times, eight of which were highly charged World Cup or Olympic qualifiers. In that stretch Israel was Australia’s most common opponent apart from New Zealand (whom Australia played 25 times in the same period).

There are no prizes for guessing which was the more intense of the two rivalries. Australia won 11 and drew eight of those 25 games against New Zealand. But the Socceroos, in the 16 showdowns against Israel, could only win four, drawing a remarkable ten and losing two.

The enmity with the Israelis by the late 1980s became so strong that it was almost comparable to the fierce historic battles of England v Scotland, Austria v Hungary, Holland v Belgium etc. Crowds were stirred by the urge to beat ‘the old enemy’ and players and coaches were deemed heroes or villains, depending on which side one was on.

In the 20-year span, Israel eliminated Australia in the World Cup campaigns of 1970 and 1990. In between Australia dumped Israel in the 1986 World Cup and 1988 Olympic campaigns. Those who now rejoice at Australia’s more comfortable lot in having to face Asian opposition to reach the 2010 World Cup should recall Israel and the fact that Israel, at least geographically, is an Asian country.

The unlikely football link between Australia and Israel, half a planet from each other, was rooted in geo-politics. The two countries found each other in being among the great unwanted. Israel was part of Asia but was not wanted by the rest of Asia whose members refused to play them because of wide political sympathies in the region with the Palestinian cause. Australia was not wanted by Asia either because, largely, it was considered there as a white, supremacist nation. So, with the expedient help of FIFA who could find no better solution, Australia and Israel became paired, enemies on the field but, in a way, mates off it as common outcasts.

And so the rivalry began in December of 1969 in Tel Aviv where Australia, coached by Joe Vlasits and captained by Johnny Warren, lost 1-0 in the hotbed of the Ramat Gan.

Ten days later, at the old Sydney Sportsground, packed to its rafters and the tops of its grassy hills, the two teams drew 1-1, courtesy of a John Watkiss Australian goal and a reply, late in the game due to a terrible defensive mistake, by Israel’s Johnny Warren-equivalent, Mordechai Shpigler

The result sent Israel to the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico while Australia regrouped to finally reach its holy grail four years later (in a campaign that did not include having to play Israel).

But the Australia-Israel rivalry reached its crescendo in the 1980s. In 1985 Frank Arok, installed as Socceroos coach just a year earlier, took the team back to Tel Aviv. John Kosmina was the captain of a squad that included David Mitchell, Frank Farina, Steve O’Connor and Graham Arnold. Arok referred to them as his ‘mad dogs’, a squad of rugged Australianisms who sourced their prey with the intent of sending them to the nearest infirmary.

Australia won in Tel Aviv 2-1, Mitchell and Kosmina getting the Australian goals, and drew the return at Melbourne’s Olympic Park 1-1.

But the high points of the campaign were the games against Israel, intense contests of the highest temperatures. Arok, seen as arrogant and a smartarse, was the most hated man in Israel. His ‘mad dogs’ reference even caused a diplomatic incident after a Sydney reporter took Arok’s words out of context and wrote that the Australian coach called the Israeli players ‘mad dogs’.

Ironically, it was Israel that was responsible for Arok’s demise as national coach four years later. In the 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign it came down to the last game in Sydney, which Australia needed to win and Israel needed to draw. At the Sydney Football Stadium (now Aussie Stadium), fully packed and heaving from end to end, Israel went ahead after the deft and quick Eli Ohana stole the ball from in between the converging Charlie Yankos and Gary Van Egmond, and put it past Terry Greedy. A late equaliser by Paul Trimboli, who had come on for Frank Farina, was too late and Australia was out, as was Arok.

There are books that could be written about the Australia v Israel phenomenon and that thrilling span of 20 years, a catalogue of two small, developing football countries in constant combat, in a parallel struggle to find a place in the sun.

But the book would end with that last 1-1 draw in 1989, for the two countries have not played each other since.

Read the whole thing.

RIP Les. May your suggestion one day somehow come true.

By the way, Australia played Israel way earlier than the 70s – except we were not called Israel back then, even though the players were unmistakably Jewish.

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A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media