In scoring the opening goal against Mamelodi Sundowns last Sunday, Kashima Antlers midfielder Yasushi Endo put his side on the road to victory in the second round of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Endo modestly downplayed his contribution to the J.League champions’ victory and explained why his home region motivates him to strive for football glory.

“It wasn’t a goal I scored by myself. It was the result of the whole team working together, and I just finished it off. I’m grateful to my team-mates,” Endo said of his left-footed strike against the South African club.

Kashima are now set to step out in Osaka to face South American champions Atletico Nacional in the semi-finals on Wednesday, when they will be very keen to improve on their performance and raise the intensity level against the only Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores twice. That said, Endo is confident that Kashima can continue their recent winning streak and reach the final.

“South American clubs are very skilful,” the 28-year-old said. “The players are pacey and their quick-fire passing can create scoring opportunities. We need to be aware of that, but if we can convert any chances that come our way, I think we have a shot at winning.”

Although Kashima have progressed to the semi-finals, their first two games have been marred by sluggish starts. Antlers struggled to find their rhythm in the first half of the 2-1, come-from-behind victory over Auckland City in the opening fixture, and they were outplayed early on against Sundowns before raising their game in the second half and eventually winning 2-0.

“It was the first time we’d faced those sides. And when you have very little information about a team, that makes it hard,” Endo explained.

The South American kings will provide a different challenge again – one Endo is relishing. “I think their players will all be tall, so there’s no point in trying to out-muscle them. We need to keep our passes on the ground, slide some through-balls behind their defence, retain possession and work as a team. If we do those things, I think we can break them down and score, just like we did against Sundowns,” insisted the player, who has spent his entire career with Kashima.

The gifted midfielder is hungry for football accolades, but he also is driven by what in Japan is affectionately known as “the spirit of people from Tohoku”. Tohoku, the largest region in Japan’s main island of Honshu, is the birthplace of five Kashima players who have appeared at this Club World Cup—midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara and defender Shuto Yamamoto (both from Iwate), midfielder Gaku Shibasaki (Aomori), Shoma Doi (Yamagata) and Endo, who hails from Miyagi.

After each season has finished, Endo returns to Tohoku to join volunteer activities helping the region recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern Japan in March 2011. J.League players from Tohoku, and other footballers who are willing to help, have formed an organisation for players who “possess the spirit of people from Tohoku”. The disaster caused extensive damage in many areas, including the city of Shiogama, where Endo spent several years coming through the youth system, and Ibaraki, where Kashima’s home ground is located. More than five-and-a-half years have passed, but the rebuilding of Tohoku continues apace. The hardship still being endured by many people in the region also inspires Endo to play as well as he can.

“I definitely want to win against Atletico,” he said. “After Kashima won the J.League title, many people in Tohoku sent me messages saying this had cheered them up. I was so pleased to hear these comments. I’ll keep helping with the volunteer activities, and I’ll make sure the disaster-hit areas are not forgotten about. I’ll continue doing this with other members of the organisation.”

Indeed, Endo is certain Kashima being crowned Club World Cup champions could provide a great fillip to the residents of Tohoku. “Winning this tournament would really lift the spirits of everyone in Tohoku. I want to give them the great news that Kashima have won the title. It doesn’t matter who our opponents are; as long as we all play as a team, including the guys on the bench, we can get a good result. I absolutely believe that.”