At the final whistle, Go Oiwa, the manager of the Kashima Antlers, tried his best to hold back tears. At the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran, one of the most hostile arenas in all of Asia, the Antlers held a 0-0 draw against Persepolis F.C. — one of the giants in Iranian soccer. The draw would give them a 2-0 win on aggregate to lift the AFC Champions League.
In the first leg at Kashima Soccer Stadium, with the Brazilian duo Leo Silva and Sérgio Cláudio “Serginho” dos Santos providing the cushion, the Antlers scored two goals and gained an edge before traveling to the Middle East.
At different times in the second leg, Ahmad Nourollahi and Ali Alipour of Persepolis drilled shots away from the goal at both edges of the box with no one marking, squandering the chances of a lead on the Antlers.
In both games, Kwoun Sun-tae of the Antlers was reliable for the shaky defense of his team after enduring a battle for a starting spot on the field with Hitoshi Sogahata in the earlier period of the season.
The Antlers were certainly delighted to win the competition, especially since the team had a watershed moment two years earlier.
During the final of the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup, Gaku Shibasaki, then a Kashima Antlers player, scored two goals to take the lead against finalist Real Madrid.
Despite the lead, Real Madrid came out victorious.
“We played Real Madrid in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup two years ago but, for me, tonight is more satisfying as we won the title,” Oiwa said after the Antlers’ AFC Champions League win, according to an article from Reuters. “The name of Kashima Antlers will now echo throughout Asia.”
Since that night in 2016, Kashima Antlers’ management team changed the strategic direction of the club and fielded its strongest lineups in the ACL, a reversal of the relaxed mentality that J1 League clubs tended to have toward the Champions League.
The J1 League, which the Antlers are a part of, is the top division of the Japan Professional Football League.
In 2017, the Antlers lost to Muangthong United F.C. of Thailand, a second year of loses. Muangthong United, which was led by Chanathip Songkrasin, was in miraculous form and won all three games at home.
That year, the Antlers fired head coach Masatada Ishii, the manager who helped the team win three titles in his two-and-a-half-year stint, while it was on top of the J League.
As unreasonable as the sacking was, the Antlers demonstrated their ambition to move past the Japan Professional Football League and onto larger competitions like the FIFA Club World Cup and the AFC Champions League.
Despite their determination, in 2018 the Antlers faced challenges like injuries, an extremely compact schedule and splitting players between various domestic and international leagues.
The split stopped them from securing a top spot domestically, despite winning internationally.
In the Champions League, the Antlers beat two Chinese riches. The battle with the glittering Shanghai SIPG was arduous, but advancing validated the positive mentality the Antlers took.
The two-legged battle with Tianjin Quanjian after the Antlers lost two of their most instrumental players — Axel Witsel to Borussia Dortmund and Anthony Modeste due to a contract dispute — looked more like a procession rather than a laborious chess match. The win was inevitable.
Facing their Korean counterpart, the Antlers needed two comebacks to stave off the pressure from the tumultuous Suwon Samsung Bluewings to reach the final, but the team’s resilience was a stark contrast to the poor decision of the team Cerezo Osaka, who dispatched its second-string team to play Guangzhou in the last group game knowing that all it needed was a win to advance to the knockout stages. The team lost the set for that decision.
For the second leg of the final, the Antlers requested that the team chef, Yoshiteru Nishi, travel with them to provide dishes the players were more used to.
By holding on to a draw during an away game, the Antlers demonstrated an organization and rigidity that was rarely displayed in the AFC Champions League this year.
The team was vulnerable to conceding goals early, based on their average performance, rendering the matches more difficult than necessary.
The Antlers got lucky in the AFC Champions League not to fall behind when Persepolis initiated waves of attacks in the first leg of their set.
The Antlers were reserved and disciplined.
“We had a lot of tough games, but we battled together as a team and managed to overcome them,” Antlers striker Yuma Suzuki said after the game.
“This was a title the club had never won and one we were determined to claim.”
Although Suzuki only scored one goal in the knockout stage, he contributed immensely by offering four assists to teammates
and constantly badgering opposition defense in the first line of pressing.
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