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Italy's Rugani keeping his feet on the ground

Empoli FC defender Daniele Rugani tells UEFA.com about Italy's goals at the U21 finals in June, his senior call-up last year and why he still has "so much to learn".

Daniele Rugani celebrates after scoring one of his two Serie A goals this season
Daniele Rugani celebrates after scoring one of his two Serie A goals this season ©Getty Images

Having enjoyed a meteoric rise last year, Empoli FC defender Daniele Rugani is eager for more in 2015, including success at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship with Italy.

An Empoli player since the age of six, Rugani returned to Tuscany ahead of the 2013/14 campaign after a strong season in the youth system at Juventus, who own half of the centre-back's playing licence. He made 40 appearances as Empoli earned promotion to Serie A and then shone in Italy's top division to such an extent he received a call-up from Antonio Conte for the Azzurri's October UEFA EURO 2016 qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Malta.

The 20-year-old had already made his U21 debut by then – scoring in a 2-0 victory against Northern Ireland last March – and he remains a key figure for coach Luigi Di Biagio, whose team qualified for June's final tournament in the Czech Republic by defeating Slovakia 4-2 on aggregate in the autumn play-offs.

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Rugani started both legs of that tie and is now looking forward to Group B fixtures this summer against England, Portugal and Sweden. "We were drawn in a very difficult group so it will not be easy in the Czech Republic," Rugani told UEFA.com. "However, we are keen to do well. We want to qualify for the Olympic Games and we will give everything to achieve at least that objective because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Italy, having begun their qualifying campaign with a 3-1 home loss to Belgium, were on the verge of elimination when they trailed Serbia by two goals in their penultimate group game. A stirring comeback, resulting in a 3-2 win, propelled them to first place in the section, setting up the Slovakia encounter. "We are good enough to compete with any team," said Rugani. "We won't start the tournament as favourites, but we can certainly have a say against anybody."

A classy defender with excellent positional sense, Rugani also has designs on making his debut at senior level. "I hope the first call-up was just a starting point. It was fantastic to be with the national team, but I'm fully aware that it's really difficult to stay there with great and experienced players. I have just started and I have so much to learn. I just hope one day I will deserve a place in the team. I will be the happiest man in the world when I make my debut.

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"For now it's only a dream, but dreams can come true – you just need commitment and confidence. I have already achieved some of my dreams, so I will just continue to work as hard as I did last year. Now everything seems great, but I don't forget that last year I was an unknown player. I have proved to myself and to other people that it is possible to improve with hard work and commitment and I don't want to change this approach now."

His coach at Empoli, Maurizio Sarri, says Rugani is mature beyond his years. So what does the man himself think? "I'm more or less how people describe me," explained Rugani. "I'm a humble but ambitious person who is always looking to improve. Even when I achieve something, I always tend to focus on the negative aspects of my performance. I'm a maniac when it comes to correcting the things I do wrong."

With this approach, the Bianconeri could recall him sooner than expected. "I'm very honoured by this attention from Juve. Every player dreams of playing for a team like Juve, but I'm only 20 and I know I still have everything to prove."

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