Gen Shoji a key figure as Kashima Antlers seek maiden AFC Champions League title
Fullback Shoji represented Japan at Russia 2018
Kashima boast 2-0 lead over Persepolis with FIFA Club World Cup spot on offer
Few players have the opportunity of playing in two FIFA competition’s in a single year. Japan and Kashima Antlers defender Gen Shoji is within touching distance of achieving that enviable feat.
Shoji represented his country at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and with his club leading 2-0 heading into Saturday’s AFC Champions League final second leg against Persepolis, the 25-year-old is close to sealing passage to next month’s FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018.
"It would really be a giant step forward for the club should we win the AFC Champions League [for the first time]," he told FIFA.com ahead of the crunch tie against hosts Persepolis. "I definitely want to do my best and win the Asian title. It will be a great campaign for us."
Despite the two-goal advantage from a hotly-contested first leg, Shoji is all too aware of Persepolis’s capabilities at Tehran’s storied Azadi Stadium, where they are undefeated this campaign with five wins and one draw.
"It would be a tough game playing against a team [like Persepolis] at the Azadi Stadium," Shoji went on. "It will be a big match and I am really looking forward to it.
"But we have confidence of achieving victory there. We can always clinch the three points as long as we exert control on the proceedings - even if sometimes our performances are below par. I think this should be a strength that can carry us through."
Kashima Antlers 2-0 Persepolis (AFC Champions League final first-leg)
Captains and referees pose for photographs prior to the AFC Champions League final first leg match between Kashima Antlers and Persepolis
Players of Kashima Antlers huddle during the AFC Champions League final first leg match between Kashima Antlers and Persepolis
A one-club player, the former Yonago Kita High School product has made consistent progress since joining Kashima in 2011. Having transformed from a young apprentice to one of Asia's top defenders with Kashima, he is particularly motivated to help his side to their maiden continental success.
"Joining Kashima was a turning point of my playing career. I wouldn't have become what I am now had I not joined the club. There are great players in our club and some of them are top-level defenders from whom I have learned much. And this is our head coach Go Oiwa's first year in charge. I want to do my best to help my team win."
Lessons from Russia 2018 Two years ago Shoji figured prominently for Kashima in their FIFA Club World Cup at Japan 2016, where, as hosts, they became the first Asian team to finish as runners-up.
More recently, he featured prominently for his nation at Russia 2018 as Japan reached the second round. Despite their eye-catching displays, however, Samurai Blue’s heart-breaking loss to Belgium left Shoji lamenting a missed opportunity as the Europeans stole a famous comeback victory through an injury-time strike.
"As a defender, it was a pity for me to lose the game at the very last moments. They grabbed the winner through a last-ditch counter-attack. I failed to thwart them. So I want to become a player capable of contributing to a win on such a big occasion."
Now, with Kashima within a whisker of sealing their return to the Club World Cup, it would be another opportunity for Shoji to prove himself on the global stage at UAE 2018. "It would be a redemptive campaign for me as well as the team. Last time we participated in the competition representing the host nation as J.League champions, so I would like to fight as Asian champions this time around."