Kashima Antlers one game away from making Club World Cup history
Kashima Antlers are within 90 minutes of making football history and becoming the first Asian team to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup. The continent's best have appeared in the tournament on 12 occasions but have not made it past the semifinal stage once.
Japanese side Kashima, however, are not even the continent's best. Jeonbuk Motors won the Asian Champions League in November and on Sunday the South Korean team took the lead against Mexican outfit Club America but ended up losing 2-1. There were some injury issues but it was another disappointing result for Asia.
It left Kashima flying the flag for the world's biggest continent as the representative of host nation Japan. Expectations were not high. The Antlers have appeared in just one of the past five Asian Champions League tournaments, exiting at the group stage in 2015.
Not only have they struggled in Asia, it is hard to say that the team is the best in Japan despite winning an eighth J.League title on Dec. 3. Kashima finished 15 points behind Urawa Reds in the season overall, but due to the playoff format ended up defeating their rivals in a two-legged final on away goals.
That won't matter on Wednesday as the men from Ibaraki, which means "Deer Island," take on Colombia's Atletico Nacional with the major prize of the final -- probably against Real Madrid -- in sight.
Asian teams always look forward to a potential clash with the European champions even if they have never won any of their past meetings. Urawa and Gamba Osaka finished third in 2007 and 2008 respectively after giving AC Milan and Manchester United tough tests. Al Sadd of Qatar fell to Barcelona in 2011, as did Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015, two years after the Chinese team had lost to Bayern Munich.
Despite the glamour of the Europeans, clashes with CONMEBOL champions have not gone much better. Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia lost to Sao Paulo in 2005. Perhaps the closest came in 2009 as Pohang Steelers lost 2-1 to Argentina's Estudiantes, but the South Koreans may have done better had they not had three men sent off. Kashiwa Reysol were eliminated by Santos in 2011 and then Sanfrecce Hiroshima went down 1-0 to River Plate last year.
Kashima may just be about to buck the trend. Under coach Masatada Ishii, the team is coming to the boil at just the right time. After that successful J.League ending, Zico's former team moved past Auckland City and then overcame South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns 2-0 in the quarterfinal on Sunday.
Mu Kanazaki, who scored three goals in the playoffs and has continued his fine form, coming off the bench -- he is still recovering from an ankle injury -- to score in both games at the Club World Cup so far. Gaku Shibasaki pulls the strings in midfield alongside Yasushi Endo, also on the fringes of the national team, along with Ryota Nagaki and defenders Naomichi Ueda and Gen Shoji.
Mamelodi coach Pitso Mosimane said that Kashima have a European style and if that is true then it bodes well as European teams always reach the final, the inaugural tournament in 2000 apart.
If Kashima do overcome the Colombians then it will not only make Asian football history, it will end a mixed year for Japanese football on a high.
None of the country's four teams made it past the second round of this year's Asian Champions League, continuing years of underachievement from a league that many feel has been the best in Asia for a number of years. That assertion has become a little harder to make every year since the J.League last had a team in the Asian Champions League final in 2008.
Korean teams have consistently outperformed Japanese rivals and while the K-League versus J.League debate has gone on for years, the arrival of the Chinese Super League as the major force in East Asia has upset the balance.
China has the money, the world-famous stars, high-profile coaches, an average attendance of over 24,000 to less than 18,000, better results in Asia and a much bigger international profile.
The J.League was struggling to react, hence the reintroduction of the playoff finals in 2015 in a bid to make the league more exciting and attractive to more casual fans. The good news in 2016 was the announcement that the J.League has done a major deal to sell online broadcasting rights to the United Kingdom's Perform Group over the next decade for $2 billion. This is unlikely to result in massive CSL-like spending but, among other areas, there is sure to be more investment in attracting a better class of foreign players and coaches than has been the case in recent years.
It would then be a massive feather in the cap of Japanese football to send a team that finished third in the J.League to the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, defeating the champions of Oceania, Africa and South America along the way.
Atletico Nacional stand in the way of Asian football history and a possible final against Real Madrid. It is a tantalising prospect and Kashima Antlers are within touching distance.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.