Kashima Antlers have been a dominant force in Japanese football for decades. Now, a new chapter in the club’s proud history is about to be written as Antlers make their debut appearance in a FIFA Club World Cup.

In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com ahead of Kashima’s opening game against Auckland City, midfield maestro Mitsuo Ogasawara spoke of his excitement at the opportunity to compete against a glittering array of continental champions.

“I’m really looking forward to this tournament,” said the 37-year-old former Japan international. “We’ll be up against players we don’t have in the J.League.” Ogasawara was at the heart of Kashima’s record eighth domestic league title, which sealed Antlers’ berth at the tournament. Yet for all the silverware Kashima have won over the years, the AFC Champions League trophy has eluded them.

Two other Japanese teams have etched their name on the trophy—Urawa Reds in 2007, and Gamba Osaka in 2008—but Kashima are yet to be crowned continental champions. Ogasawara believes the Club World Cup will be an important stepping stone as Kashima prepares for next season’s AFC Champions League. “We want to have a mind-set of playing to win at the Club World Cup. I want to focus on getting good results,” said Ogasawara.

The seasoned midfielder has played for Kashima since 1998 and over the years has become a role model for his younger team-mates. Ogasawara’s creativity and skilful passing earned him 55 caps for Japan, and he played at the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups. His importance to Kashima is exemplified by the fact that he has played in seven of the club’s eight league-winning seasons. Ever the professional, Ogasawara constantly pushes his team-mates to improve and chase more success.

We are in a position to show everyone the history Kashima has crafted over the years.

Kashima Antlers midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara

Spirit of Zico lives on
Ask any Kashima player, fan or reporter why this club has been so strong and the answer will invariably mention “the spirit of Zico.” The Brazilian legend and former Japan coach was instrumental in building the foundations of the club during its early years.

Zico was already 40 when the J.League kicked off in 1993, but he instilled a professionalism that can be found at the club even today. “Zico is a Brazilian hero, and he taught us how professionals should prepare and play, and how a team wins,” Ogasawara explained. “He won numerous titles, starred at World Cups, and won all over the world, and he showed us what was important when it came to winning. This spirit and style of winning football, and what it means to be a team, has been passed down even as our players and coaches have changed. I think that has been a major factor behind the many titles Kashima has won.”

Ogasawara also credits former Antlers coach Toninho Cerezo—a fellow central midfielder—for helping him excel even in the twilight years of his career. “He told me to use my head and play smarter,” Ogasawara said of Cerezo, who was Antlers coach for two stints that totaled 7 and a half years.

Ogasawara and Cerezo have something else in common. In 1992, Cerezo played for Sao Paulo at the Intercontinental Cup, a predecessor of the Club World Cup. At the time, Cerezo was 37—the same age Ogasawara is now. “Perhaps it was fate, but I’ll also be 37 when I make my Club World Cup debut. I hope I can deliver performances on par with a player like Cerezo,” said Ogasawara.

Although this will be Kashima’s first appearance at the Club World Cup, Ogasawara is determined the Ibaraki Prefecture-based team will not be there just to make up the numbers. “We are in a position to show everyone the history Kashima has crafted over the years,” said Ogasawara. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s at training, a J.League game, an international match or the Asian Champions League, at Kashima we play to win. I want to stay loyal to that attitude and produce good results.”