Win or lose, Australia benefits from reaching Asian Cup final

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia, perhaps more than most countries, know the benefits that winning in sport brings to a nation. And few Australians know that better than the country's long suffering soccer fans.

For years, soccer has been regarded as a fringe sport in Australia, overshadowed by cricket, rugby league and Australian Rules Football.

Right now though, soccer is the sport on every Australian's mind with the country hosting South Korea in Saturday's Asian Cup final.

A sellout crowd of more than 80,000 people will pack into Sydney's Olympic stadium while millions more will watch on television as the Socceroos try to win their first major international title.

But for head coach Ange Postecoglou, a man on a mission to get Australians to fall in love with soccer, winning the championship is secondary to his bigger goal.

"It would certainly help because with success comes all sorts of other benefits, but it’s not the be all and end all either," he told a news conference on Friday.

"Just as important is the manner in which we’ve played and the manner in which we’re performed in these games, because I think it’s got people excited about watching a game of football.

"In a country like ours, that's really important because the game is still growing and it’ll only grow when people come to the grounds or turn on their TVs and watch the spectacle."

True to his word, Postecoglou has encouraged the Australian players to attack at every opportunity, knowing that is the only way to win over a sceptical nation.

And his strategy is paying off. The Socceroos have scored more goals (12) than any other team in the tournament and have Australians tuning in like never before.

"Obviously we're pleased to be in the final. As the host-nation, we knew it was important that we got there, to make the tournament a success," he said.

"We know it’s going to be a great challenge against a great opponent and a sell out crowd.

"It should be a great occasion... and my pride comes from the fact the game in this country has got a real big kick in the last month."

A victory would also cap a remarkable decade for Australian soccer. In 2006, Australia made its first appearance at the World Cup finals in 32 years, and left Oceania to join the Asian Football Confederation, dreaming of bigger things.

The Socceroos qualified for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and also made the final of the Asian Cup in 2011 but the trophy cabinet remained bare.

In 2013, Australia suffered humiliating, successive 6-0 losses to Brazil and France and public interest in the team was dipping.

That was when Postecoglou was appointed head coach. Born in Greece but raised in Australia, he set about transforming the team.

Unpopular at first and heavily criticised, even during the Asian Cup, he has succeeded in winning over a country and is now on the verge on delivering Australian soccer the shot in the arm it needs.

"It's not supposed to be smooth," he said.

"Rollercoasters go up and down, that's why they're exciting."

(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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