Upset-minded Kashima Antlers have nothing to lose against Real Madrid
Kashima Antlers made history on Wednesday by becoming the first Asian team to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup by defeating South American champions Atletico Nacional 3-0 in the semifinal. Real Madrid await on Sunday, and rarely, if ever, has a game at this tournament been so eagerly anticipated by the host nation.
That the J.League Antlers entered the competition due to the fact that Japan is staging the event and not as Asian champions will not bother those fans that head to Yokohama International Stadium, and there should be plenty of those.
Former great Zico, who spent a happy time from 1991 to 1994 with the club, once said that Kashima, to the east of Tokyo, was not much more than a football stadium with a city attached. An average attendance of almost 20,000 is certainly impressive when the population is 70,000.
The Brazilian, who went on to become coach, left a legacy at the club, a winning spirit that saw it lift seven league titles from 1996 to 2009.
Former player Akira Narahashi played for Kashima from 1998 to 2006 and believes that the current team is rediscovering what it means to play for the Antlers. "I was sitting and crying as I watched them win," said the former Japan international. "This is a team with real spirit, that fights together the Antlers way."
This is, he said, born out of a desire to win. "The individual players come together under one aim: that is victory. All understand this."
The former full-back has called upon the team to leave the pitch with no regrets, a sentiment echoed by the Japanese media.
Kashima is a football town and now 90 minutes away from being unlikely world champions. The eight-time J.League winners (the most recent came just two weeks before the final) are ready to take on Real Madrid. Not only will Kashima have to upset history in terms of Asia at the tournament, the Antlers will have to overcome Japan's poor record against the Spanish giants.
For years, Asian teams have played the Real in exhibition games of little meaning, mainly used as convenient chances for visitors looking to make money and win fans and new markets.
In May 2002, the Japanese national team, preparing to co-host the World Cup, headed to Spain to celebrate Real's 100th birthday. Just before the 2002 UEFA Champions League final, a collection of Madrid players past and present beat the Japanese with Edwin Congo getting the only goal of the game.
The following year, the Spanish were at FC Tokyo on tour with David Beckham and Ronaldo among the scorers in a 3-0 win in the "Suntory Dream Match." In 2004, Madrid returned to the Land of the Rising Sun, beating JEF United 3-1 and Tokyo Verdy 4-0 three days later. Verdy took revenge 12 months later with a 3-0 win, with the visitors using travel and tiredness as an excuse. The last meeting came two days later as Madrid downed Jubilo Iwata 3-1.
This game is different. Despite the ambivalence with which the FIFA Club World Cup is sometimes regarded in Europe, this is as good as it gets for an Asian club when facing a team from outside the region. A competitive final against Real Madrid with the title of world champions is within grasp. It is no wonder then that Yuma Suzuki celebrated the third goal against Atletico with such emotion.
His delighted roar into the December Osaka sky was in marked contrast to the quiet way in which the team arrived into the final. The Antlers went past Oceania champs Auckland City and then saw off Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa. The run was expected to end, as it always had for Asian teams, in the semifinal against Atletico.
Yet just as Kashima had won the J.League despite finishing third and 15 points behind Urawa Red Diamonds only to take the title in the playoffs, the team from Ibaraki defeated the Colombians with less than half the possession and half the shots of the losers.
"Our main mistake was to be overconfident," said Atletico coach Reinaldo Rueda. "In the first half, we have so many opportunities that we believed it would be easy,"
In all three games, Kashima have started slowly. Perhaps they are just taking time to warm up given the fact that the long Japanese season ended just five days before the Auckland test, but doing the same on Sunday could see the Europeans out of sight by the break.
Nonetheless, the Japanese team are in a great position. There is no pressure on their shoulders at all. The tournament has already been a big success for Kashima. Nobody expected a place in the final, and now it is coming against Real Madrid. Nobody expects the trophy. To play the 11-time European champions in such a game is exciting enough, but to do it in a final, is a real thrill.
John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.