On 23 November, Kashima Antlers scraped past Kawasaki Frontale 1-0 in the J.League championship semi-final play-off. No one could have predicted that about one month later, Kashima would be playing in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016—a game in which they even snatched a 2-1 second-half lead against Real Madrid.

Despite their gallant effort against the UEFA Champions League winners, the Antlers players were bitterly disappointed they could not cap their run with victory in the final. “Second is second. It’s frustrating that we couldn’t win the title,” midfielder Gaku Shibasaki said to FIFA.com after the game.

Shibasaki scored both of Kashima’s goals in the 4-2 defeat and won the adidas Bronze Ball award for his performances at this tournament, giving him a spot on the podium with Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo (adidas Golden Ball) and Luka Modric (adidas Silver Ball). However, this was little consolation for the Japan international. “I scored twice, but that doesn’t change the fact I couldn’t fire the team to victory. I don’t feel happy at all about that,” Shibasaki said.

At a press conference before the game, Shibasaki had spoken of his determination to beat Los Merengues. His focus on winning remained until the very end of the game. “From the start of this tournament, we played with a belief that we wanted to play four matches and win the title. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t achieve that,” the 24-year-old explained. 

“But this tournament will be a stepping stone for us. We have a lot of things we must improve, and we now know what problems we have to address. There are many things we’ll need to work on.”

Big boost for Japanese football
After the game, some Kashima players chatted with Los Blancos players outside the dressing room and swapped shirts. Even amid the friendly exchanges, defender Naomichi Ueda was still looking downcast. “We lost the final, and finishing second is the same as coming last,” Ueda said.

The Kashima players ran themselves to a standstill, but eventually lost in extra-time, thanks largely to a Ronaldo hat-trick. “Being fired up and playing to win in only the first and second halves wasn’t enough. We had to continue that spirit in extra-time, too,” Ueda said as he reflected on the game. “I feel that the responsibility for losing lies partly with me.”

According to Ueda, the pain of losing the final could become a powerful motivation for the J.League champions. “We scored some goals, so our opponents came at us with everything. We need to become good enough to prevent [a team like] Madrid from scoring even when they go all-out in attack. Although we didn’t get a good result today, I want to use this experience in our next game.”

Forward Shuhei Akasaki also was disappointed, but found some silver linings in Kashima’s ability to push the European champions all the way. “It’s disappointing we couldn’t win,” Akasaki said. “But it’s good that we could show the world what Kashima can do. I think this will be a big boost not just for Kashima, but also for Japanese football.”

Kashima’s season is not over yet. On 24 December, Antlers will play Sanfrecce Hiroshima—who finished third at last year’s Club World Cup—in the Emperor’s Cup, Japan’s version of England's FA Cup. This will be a golden chance for Masatada Ishii’s side to wipe away the disappointment of losing this hard-fought final against Madrid.