18 December 2016 could go down as the most important day in Kashima Antlers’ history, as they face Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016.

Ahead of this historic match, FIFA.com spoke with two of Kashima’s rising stars who have been integral to the J.League champions’ progression to the final.

Midfielder Shoma Doi and centre back Gen Shoji are both 24. They joined Kashima at the same time as playmaker Gaku Shibasaki and form a trio representing the next generation at the club that has won a record eight domestic league titles.

Doi, who converted a penalty to open the scoring in the semi-final against Atletico Nacional, is determined to help Antlers etch their name into the history books. “I don’t want the records to simply say we played in the final. I want Kashima to go down in history for its performance at this tournament,” Doi said.

While being bullish about his side’s prospects, Doi is aware of the huge challenge presented by the UEFA Champions League holders. “They can swing into attack in an instant, and they have so many striking threats. We’ll need to be alert to long-range shots, crosses, passes threaded through our defensive line and at set pieces,” he explained.

The responsibility of carrying on the Kashima legacy rests easily with Doi, despite being relatively young. “I’ve had that sense of responsibility since the opening game of the season, and we ended up winning the J.League title and reaching the Club World Cup final. If the players of my generation don’t step up, we won’t develop as a team or as individuals."

Even so, Real Madrid are one of the world’s biggest clubs. According to Doi, Antlers must not get overawed by theirstar-studded opponents.

I don’t want the records to simply say we played in the final. I want Kashima to go down in history for its performance at this tournament.

Kashima Antlers midfielder Shoma Doi

“We can’t afford to give them too much respect,” he said. “We’ll be competitive in some aspects, but in others we might struggle. My job is to dribble, shoot and be busy in front of goal. I must be aggressive and willing to shoot. I’ll just focus on doing that.”

Defenders have attacking role
Shoji has embraced the challenges of playing at an international tournament. “It’s not something we can often experience,” he said.

Kashima’s path to the final has involved overcoming Oceania champions Auckland City, African kings Mamelodi Sundowns and South America’s Atletico Nacional – sides known for their physical approach and pacy style of football. According to Shoji, the game against the Colombian side was particularly rewarding.

“They made me raise my own game, which will be great for my development and career,” he said.

Shoji was one of several Antlers players who watched from the stands as Real Madrid defeated Club America in the second semi-final. He is likely to be marking Cristiano Ronaldo in the final, so he gained some valuable insight into how the Portuguese star moves on the field. That being said, containing Ronaldo is often easier said than done. “I won’t know until I actually play against him,” he said.

Watching the game at the International Stadium Yokohama illustrated to Shoji the vital role Madrid’s defenders play in attacks. “We know Madrid are a team that can’t win just by relying on their front line. I think they can’t win unless the players behind them also contribute going forward. Sergio Ramos and the other defenders constantly pop up in attack. I believe having centre backs who can also get forward is essential for any team competing on the global stage,” he explained.

Shoji is known for his tight marking, but he also possesses accurate passing skills. “I don’t know whether my skills will be enough against world-class players,” a visibly excited Shoji said modestly. “But at the moment, I’m just looking forward to the final,” he concluded, echoing the sentiments of all the Kashima players.