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YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Kashima Antlers eventually succumbed to Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final on Sunday but gave the European champions a real scare and sent a message that football in Japan is on the rise.
The Spanish side had been heavily favoured but the feisty J-League champions, the first Asian side to reach the final of the tournament, led 2-1 at one stage in the second half and pushed the match into extra time.
Real needed a hat-trick from Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo to spare their blushes with a 4-2 win, but the Japanese team could come away with their heads held high.
"Compared to other countries our football history is short, so to come so far, it's very meaningful. In a short period of time, Japanese football has come up to a world class level," said Kashima coach Masatada Ishii.
The J-League kicked off in 1993 and quickly grew as it managed to attract well-known foreign players such as Brazilians Zico, who played out his career at Kashima, and Dunga and German Pierre Littbarski.
Nowadays, the emphasis is on promoting local talent. Most of the 18-top flight teams have Japanese coaches and, rather than importing big name players from abroad, Japan exports its own stars to Europe.
Kashima qualified by virtue of being the host nation's league champions and had the longest path to the final.
They beat New Zealand part-timers Auckland City 2-1 in the opening playoff match before blanking South African's Mamelodi Sundowns 2-0 in the quarterfinals and Colombia's Atletico Nacional 3-0 in the semi-finals.
Real, who notched their second Club World Cup victory in three years, beat Mexico's America 2-0 in their semi-final match.
"We knew that this was going to be a difficult game," said Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane. "They were very aggressive."
Japan are keen to raise their game as the men's national team seek to qualify for their sixth straight FIFA World Cup, in 2018 in Russia, and further ahead put in a strong showing when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics in 2020.
Ishii said it was key that his team build on their experience gained in the tournament.
"I hope they'll be able to maintain a high level and it will also contribute to the development of the J-League," Ishii said.
"Next year we want to be Asian champions so we can be here again."
Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Brian Homewood