Wednesday 27 July 2016, 15:24

Rui Jorge: Olympics are a special test

Portugal’s historic UEFA EURO 2016 triumph was founded on more than just Cristiano Ronaldo’s unmistakable talent and Eder’s dramatic winner in the final. Also playing their full part was a clutch of talented young players that have also taken Portugal to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Rio 2016. They have done so in the most impressive fashion too, having formed part of an U-21 side that has not lost a competitive match since 11 October 2011, a run stretching back 26 games.

As is invariably the case with international youth football, the make-up of squads can change quickly as players develop and progress. Having enjoyed so much success recently, many of the youngsters who have played a central part in that unbeaten sequence have earned promotion to the full Portuguese national team and signed for some of the world’s biggest clubs, all of which means that coach Rui Jorge is constantly on the lookout for new talent.

“A few of these players are also playing for the senior team, which is what we’re most proud of, aside from our unbeaten run,” he told after April’s draw for the Olympic tournament in Rio de Janeiro. “Our main objective is to help players reach the highest level, which is our national team. We’re very happy that quite a few of them have made that journey.”

Rui Jorge has since seen seven members of his golden generation become European champions in France, namely Raphael Guerreiro, Cedric Soares, Danilo Pereira, William Carvalho, Rafa Silva, Andre Gomes and Joao Mario.

It is thanks to that strong and precocious nucleus of players that Portugal have built such a formidable reputation in European youth competitions, founded on a sequence of 21 wins and five draws since losing 2-1 to Russia in October 2011. As part of that run, the Portuguese went undefeated at the 2015 UEFA European U-21 Championship in Czech Republic, where they only missed out on the title after a penalty shoot-out defeat to first-time continental champions Sweden in the final. Portugal’s U-21s have won all six of their matches since then, scoring 23 goals in the process and conceding just the one.

“What we’ve achieved is pretty rare,” added Rui Jorge. “The players have been outstanding and they’ve seen that you have to be committed and make a lot of sacrifices to get to the highest level. And they’ve done that so well. They’ve really stuck together and done the Portugal jersey proud.”

Portuguese pedigree The time has now come for Rui Jorge’s youngsters to replicate their recent form at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament, Portugal’s fourth appearance in the competition and their first since Athens 2004, when a certain Cristiano Ronaldo was in the side, a precedent the current generation can take heart from.

Rui Jorge formed part of the Portugal side that reached the last four at Atlanta 1996, where they lost in the semi-finals to Argentina and went down to Brazil in the bronze-medal match, two games in which he came up against the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sorin, Juan Veron and Ariel Ortega. Argentina will be providing the opposition again in Rio, as part of a Group D that also features Algeria and Honduras.

“The 1996 tournament went pretty well for us, and we finished fourth,” recalled the former full-back. “What we’re going to try and do is make the players appreciate how rare it is to get the chance to play in an Olympic tournament. For European players in general, it’s harder to get to the Olympics than the World Cup, because of the qualification system.

“That’s what I want to tell them, that it’s a rare test that involves taking a huge amount of pride in representing your country, because of everything it means as a sporting event in general and, in a slightly different sense, because of what it means to the players.”

Stepping out into a challenging environment, with a revamped team and a vastly experienced coach, Portugal will look to keep making progress, bringing through talented youngsters who can dominate at youth level and who have the kind of potential that the senior team tapped to such good effect in becoming European champions.

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