Shortly after Sanfrecce Hiroshima claimed third place in the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 on 20 December, with victory over Asian club champions Guangzhou Evergrande, the J.League champions were already turning their attention to next season. The standard-bearers of the Hiroshima outfit’s next generation, midfielder Yusuke Chajima and forward Takuma Asano, spoke to about what they had gained from this tournament and the challenges ahead.

The 24-year-old Chajima has just completed his second year as a professional, having signed pro forms straight after graduating from university, and is a native of Hiroshima city, making his way up the youth ranks at Sanfrecce. “As we qualified as the champions of the host country, it was a good opportunity for us to show the world the strength of Japanese clubs,” said the free-kick expert, before giving further reflections on what it has been like to take part in the competition which decides the world’s finest club.

“As someone who has been playing football in Hiroshima since I was a kid, I never even thought that I would end up playing in the J.League,” he revealed. “I’ve also seen periods where Sanfrecce were not doing well, so I couldn’t have imagined that they would ever grow into this sort of club. However, finishing third in the world has given me confidence. I think we showed that Sanfrecce play good football.”

“We win by fighting to the very end and playing as a team. I think we managed to show that in the third-place play-off. I managed to experience the sort of atmospheres and competitiveness that I definitely don’t face in the J.League,” continued Chajima, after he and his team-mates tackled the club champions of four continents: Auckland City FC, TP Mazembe, River Plate and Guangzhou Evergrande.

“Personally, I didn’t shine in the J.League this year,” he admitted, before concluding with his aim for next season. “Next year I want to be able to help the team more. I also want to aim higher and become a central figure for Hiroshima”.

For his part, forward Takuma Asano received the Alibaba E-Auto Most Valuable Player award for the third-place play-off. “I’m really happy to be able to perform on such a large global stage, to win the match and to get this award. Winning an award at a tournament of this calibre has given me confidence”, said the 21-year-old, now in his third year as a pro, who went on to tell us about what he had gained from the tournament and his future aims.

“I think we managed to play well throughout the tournament. It has given us confidence. Even in the River Plate match [in the semi-finals], I think we were able to play our football and managed to play confidently as a team,” he said. “The fact that this wasn’t good enough shows that something is missing. I want to think long and hard about what it is that our opponents had that we didn’t, and I want to set my sights even higher”.

Asano played the full 90 minutes in the matches against Auckland City FC and Guangzhou Evergrande, so what does he think were the strong points of all the continental champions that the Japanese team faced?

“The teams’ ways of playing and strong points are completely different. With every match we played, the playing style of our opponents changed and they got stronger on the ball,” he revealed. “I often felt that their individual skills were completely different to ours. Even so, there were some things that we did well and some things that we didn’t. I want to think about that and aim even higher”.

That said, he was involved in the winning goal in the match for third, Douglas putting away the rebound after Asano’s header from Yoshifumi Kashiwa’s cross had come back off the crossbar. “That goal was created by two of our players getting to the ball first, ahead of our opponents. That is the strength of Hiroshima,” said Asano, before sounding a note of warning about beaten opponents Guangzhou Evergrande, with whom Hiroshima will vie for the AFC Champions League next year.

“We have just played against the Asian champions in the play-off. However, I think that if we play them in the Asian Champions League everything will be different: the atmosphere, the players’ attitudes. It won’t be like today’s game, it will be even tougher.”

This season Hiroshima earned the right to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup by qualifying as champions of the host country, having won the domestic league on the back of a string of hard-fought victories. However, a top-level tournament like the AFC Champions League offers the challenge of conquering Asia, if they can safely negotiate more tough matches like the recent clash against Guangzhou Evergrande.

“We can scale the summit of Asian football if, match in match out, we can manage to produce the sort of strong performance that we put in against Guangzhou, while also continuing to raise the level of our play,” concluded Asano. And, if the young striker’s hopes are realised, Sanfrecce Hiroshima would once again return to this stage in 2016, this time as champions of Asia.