Kashima Antlers became the first club from Japan, or indeed Asia, to reach the final of a FIFA Club World Cup after defeating South American champions Atletico Nacional 3-0. Forward Yuma Suzuki, who came through the Kashima youth system, scored the third goal that sealed the victory five minutes from time, just a minute after coming on as a substitute at the Suita City Football Stadium in Osaka.
Suzuki’s jubilant reaction had shades of the trademark goal celebration of Real Madrid’s ace striker Cristiano Ronaldo – a player Kashima could face in the final of Japan 2016 on Sunday.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com after Wednesday's semi-final, the rising star of Japanese football was still fizzing with excitement at Kashima’s victory and the prospect of playing against one of his idols in the global club showpiece.
“I’m so thrilled that I scored with my first touch in the game,” Suzuki said of his cool-headed finish from a pinpoint cross by Mu Kanazaki. “Kanazaki and I understand each other so well on the field, and he threaded through a fantastic pass for me.”
After slotting his goal, Suzuki did a mid-air twist, landed with his arms pointing to the ground and unleashed a mighty roar. His inspiration for this Ronaldo-esque celebration partly stemmed from his admiration of the player and partly stemmed from peer pressure.
“Lots of people were telling me to do it. Even the local reporters were saying, ‘You’ll impersonate Ronaldo if you score, won’t you?’. So I was simply complying with their wishes. I sort of had to do it,” Suzuki said half-jokingly.
Suzuki first watched Ronaldo play eight years ago when the Portuguese star was a member of the Manchester United team that won the 2008 Club World Cup title. Although Suzuki was just 12 at the time, he vividly recalls watching Manchester United’s thrilling 5-3 victory over Gamba Osaka in the semi-finals in Yokohama. In a twist of fate, the International Stadium Yokohama will host this year’s final, where Kashima will play the winner of Thursday’s semi-final between Madrid and Club America.
“I went to watch that semi-final. I don’t know yet who we’ll face in the final, but it would be brilliant if we come up against against Ronaldo, who I saw playing in that very stadium back in 2008,” Suzuki said.
Antlers are making the most of their maiden appearance at the Club World Cup. The J.League champions might have been expecting to have the home advantage against the Colombian giants on Wednesday, but a boisterous band of Atletico Nacional supporters who packed into the stadium created an electric atmosphere.
“It felt like an away game at times,” Suzuki explained.
Despite this, a confident-looking Suzuki is thoroughly enjoying this tournament. He seems unfazed by minor setbacks, and has displayed nerves of steel at key moments. Playing on the global stage has, if anything, quickened his development as a player. Undaunted by the pressure of playing in a final, Suzuki has only one result in mind, as he concluded the interview.
“Kashima is a club that demands victory, and that won’t change if we play against Real Madrid," he said. "Our next game is the final, and I'm really excited about that. Tiredness won’t be a factor. Winning the next game is all we are thinking about."