THEY WERE little more than the token host nation representative to keep local interest alive, but Kashima Antlers are now one game away from the FIFA Club World Cup final.
The Antlers won their second game in the 2016 competition when they beat Mamelodi Sundowns in the quarter-final game in Osaka. This follows their previous win against Auckland in the preliminary round.
It has been a busy week for the Antlers as they won the J-League only last weekend, beating Urawa Reds in the final.
They showed great resilience against a Mamelodi side that dominated the first period and looked set to claim a semi-final place. But for Antlers’ goalkeeper, Hitoshi Sogahata, who pulled off a string of fine saves, the Japanese would have been beaten by half-time. But like so many African sides in the FIFA Club World Cup, they fell at their first hurdle. The Antlers scored twice in the second half through Yasushi Endo and Mu Kanazaki.
Strangely, Mamelodi coach Pitso Mosimani claimed that Kashima were over-physical, not something usually associated with Japanese teams. “We were a little out-muscled,” he said. “It was a game of two halves…we showed a little bit of inexperience, particularly in the final third.”
The Antlers also demonstrated their character in lifting the J-League title. They came top of the first stage, losing just two of their 17 games, but slipped to 11th in the second phase. Urawa ended top overall and qualified for the play-off, but Kashima had to play Kawasaki Frontale to see who would meet Urawa. They won 1-0.
The first leg of the play-off saw Urawa pull off a 1-0 win in Kashima thanks to a second-half penalty. In the second leg, played before 60,000 people in Saitama, Kashima fell behind to an early goal, but came back to win 2-1, with Mu Kanazaki netting both goals.
Kashima’s coach, Masatada Ishii, the first Japanese to lead the Antlers to the J-League, was overjoyed at his team’s success. “We started this with the duty to win a title and now we’ve achieved that I am truly really happy,” he told the Japanese media.
The J-League play-off format has been universally unpopular and is being abandoned. When they decided to implement a two-stage season, the media warned it was “courting disaster” and it has done little for the sport’s popularity in Japan. Next season, the J-League will be a 34-game single stage affair, with the top team being declared champions.
As for the FIFA Club World Cup, Kashima become the fifth Japanese side to reach the semi-finals – Urawa 2007, Gamba Osaka 2008, Kashiwa 2011 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2015 have all been there before.
They will face Colombia’s Atlético Nacional, the Libertadores Cup winners, and the club that was due to meet Brazil’s Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericano. Of course, Chapecoense’s team was wiped out by a terrible plane crash.
How the Chapecoense affair affects the Colombians remains to be seen, but it is possible they will have to lift themselves in the aftermath of tragedy. But on arriving in Japan on December 10, their coach, Ronaldo Rueda said: “The best tribute [to Chapecoense] we can give is to play a great tournament and reach the final.”