Thursday, October 12, 2006

Australian team rebuilds as home popularity grows

Australia, undergoing a transition after the retirement of senior players, will be seeded at the Asian Cup finals next year after beating Bahrain 2-0 to top its qualifying group. "It was vital to top the group,'" Socceroos coach Graham Arnold said after the game in Sydney. "It's all new for the players going into Asia because they don't know what they're up against. This is a learning process for them." Australia left Oceania to join the Asian Football Confederation in January and became the region's top team by reaching the World Cup second round in Germany four months ago.

According to Dan Baynes of Bloomberg, the run stoked domestic interest in a sport that has lagged behind Australian rules football, rugby league and rugby union. This is amplified by the Sweeney Sports Report findings released today, which shows soccer trails only Aussie rules in popularity after 56 percent of Australians expressed an interest in the sport. Its previous best performance was 50 percent in 2002. Thousands of fans attended player appearances in Brisbane and Sydney during the past week as the bulk of the World Cup squad returned home for the first time since the tournament.

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