Kashima Antlers showed how far Japanese soccer has come when they gave Real Madrid a mighty scare in the Club World Cup final last Sunday, but it may be some time before a J. League champion gets to take advantage of Japan hosting the tournament again.
Antlers pushed Madrid all the way to extra time before finally succumbing 4-2 in Yokohama, and the players’ post-match disappointment at not being able to beat the 11-time European champions — a feat that only two teams have managed this year — was a telling indicator of how close they came.
But the fact that Masatada Ishii’s men did not look out of place was their real victory. Antlers beat Auckland City, Mamelodi Sundowns and South American champions Atletico Nacional to earn the right to face Madrid, and the achievement was not lost on their manager.
“For us to advance to the final means that the level of Japanese football has developed and gotten closer to the level of European and South American teams,” Ishii said ahead of the final. “Asian football has developed and grown.”
Of course the piecemeal nature of the Club World Cup means success in the tournament must be taken with a pinch of salt. Not even the most one-eyed of J. League fans would argue that Kashima’s achievement makes it the second-best club team in the world — indeed, its third-place finish in the overall J. League table this season means it wasn’t even the second-best club team in Japan.
But it is a fact that Japanese teams have performed very well at the Club World Cup on home soil. Urawa Reds, Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima have all finished third at the tournament, and the sense that a J. League team was capable of ousting a South American champion for a place in the final had been building for some time.
“I think Japanese football made improvements a long time ago,” said Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane ahead of the final. “It didn’t just happen in the last couple of years. There are Japanese players at big clubs in Europe, and it was Japanese coaches who got them to that level.”
If Antlers or any other J. League team want to play at the Club World Cup again for at least the next two years, however, they will have to qualify as Asian champions. The tournament will return to the United Arab Emirates for the next two editions, taking the slot reserved for the host country’s domestic champion with it.
The Club World Cup has left and returned to Japan in the past, but this time the break could be decisive. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has floated the idea of expanding the tournament to 32 teams and playing it in June, and the Swiss-Italian reiterated that “all options are on the table” when he visited Yokohama last weekend.
JFA president Kozo Tashima, who is also a member of the FIFA Council, hardly gave the impression that he is prepared to fight tooth and nail to bring the competition back to Japan.
“I always look forward to the Club World Cup coming back to Japan and I support that, but the tournament has grown bigger and I support the idea of different nations sharing it,” said Tashima, sitting alongside Infantino. “Other countries can enjoy the same experiences that we have. Of course we would miss it, but if it helps the Club World Cup to grow, we have to support that decision.”
The idea of a 32-team competition may ultimately never get off the ground, but Chinese investment and FIFA’s desire to spread events to new markets mean that the tournament may not return to Japan for the foreseeable future, even if it does remain in its current format.
The Club World Cup may be a curious and largely unloved tournament, but Kashima’s run to the final proved it can be a positive force for the Japanese game.
It would be a shame to see it go.