“Goodness me! We didn’t expect such a difficult game,” exclaimed Cristiano Ronaldo at the end of Sunday’s FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016 final against Kashima Antlers. But as he puffed his cheeks out and wiped the sweat from his brow, the Portuguese star gave a broad smile. In the end, it was mission accomplished.

The J.League champions certainly proved to be a surprise package, in more ways than one. They raised eyebrows in winning through to the final at the expense of Auckland City, Mamelodi Sundowns and Atletico Nacional. And they sprang another surprise in coming from behind in a match that Real Madrid looked to have under control after taking a ninth-minute lead, gaining admiration around the world for having the European champions on the ropes in the closing stages of normal time, when the underdogs came close to landing a knockout blow.

“It was an extremely tough match,” said a relieved Ronaldo. “We were up against very difficult opponents who were able to get back into the game. They’re a very good side and they were in great physical shape. Personally, I’m very happy because I got three goals.” The Portuguese forward was named man of the match after scoring the goal that pulled his side back to 2-2 and then adding two more in extra time to seal victory.

“Every match is hard to win, but Real Madrid always fight and we’ve done what we came here to do, which was to become world champions and end the year with three titles for the club,” added the beaming Ronaldo, who was wearing his winner’s medal and clutching the adidas Golden Ball he collected as the player of the tournament.

“Japanese football has shown that it’s come on a lot,” continued Ronaldo. “It’s got plenty going for it and it really surprised me.” And with that, he headed off to the dressing rooms.

Waiting for him there, having yet to take their showers, were the Kashima players who only minutes earlier had been making him sweat. They wanted to have their photo taken with the Portuguese ace, who was only too happy to oblige. Having helped form a guard of honour as his opponents stepped up to collect their runners-up medals, Cristiano shared a hug with them before posing for a photograph that for many of them meant almost as much as the respect they have gained around the world for their Japan 2016 campaign.

Ronaldo, who has now won the Club World Cup three times – twice with Real Madrid and once with Manchester United – will leave Japan a happy man, having set the seal on what he described as a “perfect year”, a “dream year” even.

Driven by an unquenchable thirst for success, the uniquely talented forward had sounded an ominous warning before he took his leave, however: “It’s time to rest now and think about the challenges coming up next year.”