Kashima Antlers manager Masatada Ishii hailed his team as an inspiration for the little guy after the J. League champions went down fighting 4-2 against Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final on Sunday.

Antlers almost pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern soccer history when they took 11-time European champion Madrid to extra time at Nissan Stadium, missing a chance to win it with the last kick of the 90 minutes when Yasushi Endo blazed a shot wide with the score at 2-2.

Cristiano Ronaldo then scored two extra-time goals to complete his hat trick as Madrid finally pulled away to claim the trophy, giving the Spanish aristocrats their second Club World Cup title in three seasons.

But record eight-time J. League champions Antlers also had plenty to celebrate despite the defeat, and Ishii chalked it up as another feather in the cap of the club from the small Ibaraki Prefecture city that has been punching above its weight since the J. League began.

“It has only been 25 years since Japanese football turned professional, so compared to the other teams that are here, we don’t have such a long history,” said Ishii, whose side beat teams from New Zealand, South Africa and Colombia to reach the final.

“We are from a very small city, and at the start of the J. League we were told it was 99.9999 percent impossible for us to become a J. League club. We bet on this 0.0001 percent and we were able to become a professional club. The fact that a club like us can represent Japan in a tournament like this is an encouragement for small clubs all around the world.”

Ishii’s comments were tinged with a heavy dose of regret after Antlers failed to take the final step and finish Madrid off, and anger at a controversial decision by Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe late in the game.

Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, who had already been booked, took down Mu Kanazaki in what appeared to be a clear yellow-card offense, but the referee failed to send Ramos off amid furious protests from the Kashima players.

“I think that was a yellow card,” said Antlers midfielder Ryota Nagaki. “I think the referee was showing Real Madrid more respect than anyone else on the pitch. Even early in the first half he was blowing for fouls against us that were never fouls. There was nothing we could do about it.

“We would have had more chances to score (if Ramos had been sent off). I think it would have changed the flow of the game.”

Madrid looked headed for an easy night when Karim Benzema turned home a rebound from Luka Modric’s shot to stake the Europeans to a ninth-minute lead, only for Gaku Shibasaki to pull one back for Kashima a minute before halftime.

“It didn’t go the way we thought,” said Madrid’s German World Cup-winning midfielder, Toni Kroos. “We wanted it to be a little easier, of course, but you never know. These teams from other continents play a little bit different and it’s never easy and they did a very good job.”

Shibasaki then turned the game completely on its head when he wriggled clear of four Madrid defenders and lashed a shot past goalkeeper Keylor Navas to put Antlers 2-1 ahead in the 52nd minute.

“I didn’t actually see it go in, so I wasn’t sure if it was over the line, but all my teammates started celebrating, so I knew it was,” said Shibasaki. “But it didn’t help us win and for that reason I don’t think it was anything to particularly celebrate. We still had a lot of time left to play so I didn’t feel any particular excitement at scoring.”

A foul by Shuto Yamamoto on Lucas Vazquez then gave Ronaldo the chance to equalize from the spot in the 60th minute, and the newly crowned four-time world player of the year made no mistake before going on to settle the game with two more goals in extra time.

“I always want to play my best,” said Ronaldo. “I’m very happy with this season. Sometimes people criticize me but I’m used to it. I always think only about things on the pitch. I’ve been playing for more than 10 years and I continue doing my job, enjoying the matches, and I want to get more titles.”

Madrid is hoping to claim an unprecedented season quadruple of Spanish League, Spanish Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup titles, and manager Zinedine Zidane was delighted to secure the first of those targets.

“We’re very happy to win the title,” said the Frenchman. “Each of the titles are important for us. We were prepared to suffer because we knew that this was going to be a difficult game. We knew it wouldn’t be an easy game, and our opponents were running so much. They were very aggressive and fought for every ball.

“We’re very happy that we were able to win the title in the end because we did have to travel a long distance, and we’re glad that we can take the trophy back to our country.”

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