OSAKA – Kashima Antlers are out to score one for Japanese and Asian soccer in Wednesday’s Club World Cup semifinal against Atletico Nacional, saying the onus is on them to prove that Asia is gaining on its European and South American counterparts.
No club from Asia has reached the final in tournament history. With the competition going to the United Arab Emirates the next two years — and whispers that it is headed for China afterward — this Club World Cup could be Japan’s best shot at a place in the final for the foreseeable future.
“I think whether the gap has closed or not rests on us, which is why these next two games are extremely important,” Kashima manager Masatada Ishii said at Suita Stadium, on the eve of the tournament’s first semifinal. Real Madrid faces Club America in the other semi on Thursday in Yokohama.
“Sanfrecce Hiroshima had an injury in their first match last year, but got stronger and stronger with each game. And in my opinion, it says a lot about the depth and organization of the Japanese clubs, those qualities could be world class.”
“I hope we can play like Sanfrecce because we’re in very good form at the moment and we need to sustain that form through the upcoming two games. If we produce the right results, then it will be seen that the gap is closing.
“If we don’t, people will say Japan and Asia are still worlds apart from Europe and South America. We’ve got to fight not only for us, but for all of Japanese football.”
The Nacional game will be Antlers’ fifth in two weeks, including wins against Auckland City and Mamelodi Sundowns in their first two matches of the Club World Cup.
Ishii admitted he is having a difficult time deciding on his lineup, trying to keep the J.League champions fit with Kashima virtually playing once every three days.
The Antlers players, however, are soaking up the moment, relishing the opportunity of competing against the champions of other confederations.
“I’m not tired,” defender Daigo Nishi said, half-jokingly. “You don’t get the chance to play in a tournament like this very often, and I’m having a blast. I’m enjoying it so I’m not feeling any pressure.”
Nacional could be the ones under pressure, not only carrying the weight of being South American champions but also the burden of having to win for Chapecoense, the Brazilian club that saw its playing and coaching staff largely wiped out in the tragic air disaster two weeks ago.
Chapecoense was flying to Colombia to face Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final. Nacional coach Reinaldo Rueda described Chapecoense as his team’s “brothers.”
“These past few weeks have no doubt been difficult,” Rueda said. “Chapecoense are our brothers. We must win it for them because we are a team, because we are human beings.
“They were on their way to fulfilling a dream but had their path cut off. So we need to play for them and reach the final.”
Rueda perceives Antlers, eight-time winners of the J.League, to be a legitimate threat, saying they could challenge for a title if they competed in a top-flight league in South America.
“Kashima Antlers are a very competitive team,” he said. “They play attractive football, their tactics and teamwork are impressive. When they played (Santa Fe of Colombia) in the Suruga Bank Championship in Japan, they looked good despite losing.
“Their recent form has been good and they are more than capable of holding their own against South American teams. They would do very well if they were in a South American league.”
In the fifth-place match, Asian champions Jeonbuk Hyundai take on Sundowns, the champions of Africa.